Saturday, May 8, 2010

Barbara Bui “Le Parfum” ****

So, the advent of Mother’s Day got me to thinking.

See, I’m a dog mom, and four-legged furry children are all the kids I’m ever going to have in this life. At 42, you get to that place where you are really, really sure about the choice not to have kids. As I have been known to say, I’ve experienced the urge to be a vegetarian far more fiercely than I ever have to have children. And I eat a lot of meat.

So that’s good! Verrrry important that if you don’t want to be a mom, you don’t end up as one. But being a dog mom, well, that’s another story. I love my kids, Rocky (left) and Lily (right), more than I can say.

What I noticed when I fell hard for perfume was that I was not the only one in my family that spent a whole lot of their day sniffing things. In fact, their interest in what things smell like put mine to shame. (I have a friend, Cosi, quite the dog person herself, who has this wonderful synaesthetic metaphor for the gulf between the way dogs and humans experience the world. She says that the world of smells all around us must be like coral reefs for dogs—color, depth, complexity, movement, and constant excitement, with some smells fixed to their sources, and others, like schools of fish flashing by, but through the air, not through the water. And we sad humans experience all this wonder of the olfactory world as if it were night.)

My Other Nostril, always useful in his retirement for Half-Baked Fantastic Schemes To Make Lots Of Money, thinks that with the rise in the ape-silly market of All Things gourmet/high fashion/luxury for dogs, the time is ripe for a line of doggie perfume. (Full disclosure: Bazr and I, with the gourmet, raw, handcrafted dog food and the ludicrous doggie fashion, are as guilty as any dog parents with way too much disposable income. For Lily, at least, I always use the excuse that fashion is a necessity—not a luxury. After all, she is French.)

I am not about to be in the business of launching a line of dog perfume any time soon, but the exercise of thinking about what a dog perfume might smell like led me to some interesting places.

Like first off. If dogs’ sense of smell is supposed to be all that great, why don’t they think anything stinks? I mean, think about it. If their noses are so sensitive, have you ever seen a dog run up to something, stick its schnoz in it, and then recoil in disgust? If you’ve lived with a dog for any length of time, you will notice they spend the same amount of time with things that smell sweet and foul alike. (And if you don’t spend any time with dogs, I will not horrify you with details of the things that dogs will eat. Suffice it to say, they will eat things that have already been eaten before. And rejected. Or digested. Seriously. It is truly disgusting.)

And I mean, hell: who suffers more when they get skunked, you or them? You!! They seem slightly stunned, but hey, reeking to high heaven is just a new thing they’re trying out for now. And, hel-lo—Skunks? Frack-tastic sense of smell doesn’t say to a dog: Stay away? I mean, come on…..

And how about this: take a look at our son-in-law, Neal. (This is how he looks now. The photo above was how he looked when we first got him.)

This is for our son, Rocky, the Most Precious Object in the whole world. They say that every dog needs a job. Well, for Rocky, that’s chasing and guarding Neal, and when he’s not engaged in that, kicking him around like a soccer ball and trying to rip his face off.

Neal, as you can see, has had a bit too much plastic surgery. I have to cram some of his piggy stuffing back in to one hole or another two or three times a week and then stitch him back up. He threatens to become more thread than pig at some point. Baths for Neal are getting less frequent as well, because every time I soak him and soap him up, he loses more of his pink piggy fur.

But hey, Rocky loves him. Rock-star has been dragging that damned fool pink pig around with him everywhere he goes for two years now. And while I don’t lay any claim to having the most sensitive nose out there, I will attest to this: Neal does not stink. In fact, as impossible as it is to believe, even when I stick my nose right up to him, I don’t smell Neal at all. That is weeks and months of caked-on dog drool on that pig, along with whatever dust and detritus Neal picks up getting carried through the house in Rocky’s mouth. But Neal, no matter how damaged his looks are, is scent neutral. (To me. Some times when we play hide-the-pig, Rocky will catch a whiff, stiffen, and sniff the air wildly. He can smell his lover…)

Ok. I digress. So stuff that we think stinks, or doesn’t even smell at all, dogs think is verrrrry interesting.

So how might you go about creating a line of dog scent?

I’ve seen a few stabs at dog scent out there: Lavender, Honeysuckle, Bee Balm. I remember one shampoo I bought made my dog smell just like an oatmeal cookie. I loved it.

But that’s the point—I loved it. She hated it. Have you ever seen a dog fresh from the tub run outside as fast as their four legs can carry them and flop down on their backs in grass, dirt, or worse, and roll and roll? It’s as though they are saying with their whole bodies: Please, Lord, take away this olfactory onslaught and give me back my wholesome doggy smell.

So making dogs smell like flowers and herbs and stuff, that seems a little wrong. It kinda misses the point—that’s not really who they are.

Bazr, ever helpful, suggests that perhaps we should create a scent for dogs that smells like treats: like bacon and peanut butter and cheese. I include this ludicrous suggestion only to summarily crush it: why would a dog want to smell like a snack he can’t have? That would be, I would think, incredibly frustrating (and confusing) to a dog. It would be akin to needing to sneeze but not…quite…being able to. Always thinking you’re about to eat something delicious, but it never happens.

So that’s out.

But, never daunted, Bazr has another idea: What, when out on walks, do dogs like to sniff most? Answer: other dogs’ pee (known as "peemail") and other dogs’ butts. Why not a line of ass scents for dogs?

While I can see the ever-loving logic in this, as in all of Bazr’s “ideas,” it does somehow miss the point of creating a scent that makes the dogs smell good to their human counterparts. I know a lot of perfumes have civet and castoreum and musks, and a whole lot of other notes that invoke nether parts, but to go flat out and stink up your dog to smell like that, well, I think that even for insane dog parents, there is some sort of a limit, and I think we’ve reached it.

Actually, I scoff, but while I'm sure that "Eau de Cul pour Les Chiens" might be a popular everyday scent for dogs, as it just so happens, I know what they would love to smell like for special occasions.

When we take Rocky and Lily to the beach, we let them off leash—watching them scamper and frolic freely is one of our happiest family together times. So much to explore and smell at the beach-- the kids might call it "sniffalicious."

About six months ago, the four of us were at the shore, and walking along like we normally do. Rocky, while not a flat-out bolter, does have the tendency to ramble a bit at the beach, so I’m always keeping my eye on him and calling him back (while tempting him with a treat) if he’s strayed too far.

Suddenly, rather than zig-zagging and sniffing and playing around with his sister, Rocky lifts his head, sniffs the air, and then takes off like a shot up the beach. Everything about his body language is different: he is on a mission and running as fast as his four short legs can take him. “Oh, sh*t,” I say, and take off him as fast as my fleshy middle-aged legs can take me. I start shouting his name, first enticingly, but then with increasing urgency: “Rocky. Ro-cky!!!” He does not slow down, does not even look in my direction. If anything, he’s running faster. This, I know, is not good.

The next few moments happen in slow-motion—time slowed down like right before a car accident: a lady calls out to me: “Oh, no. You’ve got to stop him—there’s a dead seal over there.” I see it now, half-buried in the sand, and Rocky has reached it—I’m still a good 15 feet away—I’ve got no chance. When he gets to it, Rocky throws himself down on his back, and as I race up to him, he is rubbing and rubbing himself on this flattened out, desiccated, sand-caked gray thing.

“Monster!!” I shriek, betrayed to the core. “Murderer!!” All of a sudden, Lily has sprung up right beside the two of us, and guess what? She thinks this awesome. She’s got that look that dogs do when they’re laughing-- everybody running, yelling, rolling in a dead seal. Best. Beach. Trip. Ever.

Just in time, Bazr brings up the rear. “Get your daughter!” I command him. Dutifully, he picks her up. I grab three of Rocky’s four outstretched legs like he’s a steer to be lassoed and drag him off the carcass. I slap his leash back on him, all the while cursing him and the bitch that birthed him. We four make our way back to the car and head straight home, afternoon at the beach cut short.

In the back seat, Lily keeps pawing and sniffing at Rocky, trying to take it all in. But Rocky, he sits statue-still, locked in a thousand-yard stare. Who knows where the full-bodied infusion of dead seal takes him, but clearly in his mind he is flying far, far away.

As a dog mom, I ascribe to the school of always calibrating the right degree of maternal outrage, whether it be real or manufactured. I try hard to remain furious, but by the time we're home, Bazr and I are laughing hard about it. I hate giving dogs a bath, but even I have to admit, Rocky made a really good run for it.

So it’s my theory that if dogs were ever given discretionary incomes, I think "Eau de Dead Seal" would be a big best seller. That is, when dogs have learned to move out, get their own place, and shop for their own dog food. Then they can buy and wear all the "Eau de Dead Seal" they want. When I come to visit them, we can sit outside, and I can wear a clothespin on my nose.


I guess there’s no real way to talk about Mother’s Day without at least mentioning my own mother.

Here is the moment I take to say what those of us of a certain age say about our parents: it was a different time then. Women had children without thinking about it as a choice. What my mother's life might have been like without we three kids, well, no one can say.

The only scent my mother could stand to wear was Jean Naté—my mother was sensitive to life, allergic to almost everything: food, pollen, car rental counters. She was built strong—even taller and stockier than my Polish peasant build, but my mother was my first study in fragility: almost anything in life could overtake her, both physically and emotionally.

I still see Jean Naté bottles at the drug store from time to time—what do they call it? “After Bath Splash”? That's not even a thing. Then there's the mongrel Franglais name: "Jean"-- as in "blue jeans" and the made-up fakey-French "Naté," signifying nothing. The absurdity of the size of the bottle, $19.99 for a whopping 30 ounces, with that little round black plastic lid--I still hold the feel of it in the palm of my hand.

I should find Jean Naté schlocktastic. That would be the proper arch response of my generation. (Some generations fought great wars, others great depressions, others fought for human rights. My generation’s great contribution to humanity? Knowing sarcasm and world-weary irony. You’re welcome.)

Instead I find Jean Naté—the whole idea of it-- deeply sad.

Let someone who doesn’t have the maternal memories that I do explain JN. Angela from NowSmellThis, take it away:

Jean Naté first came out in 1935 for the Jean Naté company, which was later bought by Revlon. Cruising the internet, I’ve seen lists of its notes including lavender, jasmine, rose, carnation, lily of the valley, cedar, tonka, musk, and sandalwood. What I smell, though, is a quick burst of plastic and alcohol followed by a delicious, fresh lemon verbena with lavender and faint vanilla. The scent stays close and burns off quickly. You could easily splash on Jean 
Naté after your morning shower, and by the time you’ve had coffee and read the daily posts at Now Smell This, you’d be able to get dressed and wear whatever perfume you want without worrying about it clashing.

That’s a pretty fair assessment of the stuff as I remember it. Definitely the first impression is alcohol. I might call the citrusy note lemongrass rather than lemon verbena, but I’m not here to quibble. The first “la” in lavender for the top notes. It would dry down in mere minutes to a wan jasmine wash. Underneath was what I would guess was the sandalwood left over after the real perfume makers had picked the lots over. I’m guessing the equivalence of dog food-grade sandalwood (not that dog food is such a bad thing…), and probably now, in the modern formulation, utterly fake.

I thought for a moment about doing some research on JN before writing about it—I read that the formulation has changed in the past decades since I smelled it last, not surprising. I opted against, because my relationship with JN is the one that my mother wore, and I don’t need to smell it again to know everything about it.

It’s like cheap aftershave, only made deliberately cheaper—it’s scented alcohol to cool your skin down and make you feel fresh for a few minutes. Then it dies away. I remember from the ads for it when I was a kid that they would talk about it being “specially designed not to clash with other scents.” Even as a kid, I thought that was a strange thing to boast about. I mean, I thought to myself, how would they know what perfume you were wearing that day and what would go nice with it? How could you make a statement like that?

There is something true about the fact that my mother, buffeted helplessly about by just about every obligation life puts on a person, the only scent she would adorn herself with would be pinched and fleeting, designed to be overwhelmed by anything with intent and staying power. And yet, impossibly, bought at the drug store by the half-gallon.

My mother had no genius for pleasure. Nor did she have a twentieth of the fiber that it takes to raise children—we were an assault on her very being. (Heed my caution about knowing whether or not motherhood is really right for you.) Jean Naté, for me, is the scenttrack of her exhaustion.

So one of the strangest parts about writing LCN for me is the fact that so much stuff comes up as a true fact, but I don’t know why until later.

My pre-verbal cravings as I typed this piece demanded I wear Barbara Bui “Le Parfum,” a discontinued European rarity, created by the nose Anna Flipo. How many millions of miles could this stuff possibly be from either "Eau du Dead Seal," or Jean Naté, I couldn’t tell you.

I had been wearing BBLP since spring, charmed by its soapy spiciness: a true jasmine/ylang-ylang opening with a big white vanilla musk underneath making it smell clean and yet approachable all at once, like friendly skin. Then for hours it would wear warmer, deeper, creamier, spicier—the woods and incense and spices would poke out: allspice, nutmeg, juniper. Still subtle, but complex, like an eggnog made by a master.

I had contemplated writing about BBLP but couldn’t quite find the hook—I found it to be three-star good, but I had some kind of four-star crush on it. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on with the stuff.

Except then when I sat down to write, I sniffed deeper. Little hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. I know this will make sense to no one else but me as I say this, but out of the bottle the structure, the bones, the arc of the logic of BBLP is Jean Naté. As sure as I’m sitting here.

Knock the citrus astringency off the top, give the bottom butterfat, vanilla, incense, and musk for depth, but they are the same scent, I tell you. How a lemon ice and a crème brulée can be related in my mind: I am my mother’s daughter, and yet so, so different in every way. But in my mind I am traveling, flying, far, far away.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there and to all of you who ever had a mother. It’s good to be back and writing. I’ll post when I can.


  1. Happy mothers day to you (I'm sure your dogs would say it if they could so I'm just saying it for them too). :)
    Good to have you back!

  2. Welcome back! What a beautiful post; please do keep writing. As a middle child of five, I also observed, and at an early age, that my mother had no genius for pleasure (lovely phrase, that). I have early memories of her complaints about all of the work she had to do as a result of having us. I did wonder why she did have us, if that was the way she felt about it. I don't suppose my siblings wonder why I didn't have children, although they all did. I feel lucky, though, that she has lived long enough (she is 95) for me to have a fine, adult relationship with her. She always seemed more interested in nice bath products than perfume. (Where would she have worn perfume anyway?) But a lovely scented bath...maybe her only solitary pleasure.

    I love the dog stories (mmmm, dead seal). I'm a cat-mom of four (1 mom cat and 3 offspring from different litters); catnip is a big fave around this household. I have a lovely bushy plant of it in the garden. Invariably, one fine Spring day, I will find a large, cat-shaped dent in it. From this fur-mom to another, I wish you a very happy Mothers' Day.

    P.S. I vaguely remember Jean Nate as very citrus-y, not unpleasant. Do you remember VitaBath? That was rather nice, but I've not smelled it in years.

  3. This comment could easily be 4 or 5 stories, but as it is Mothers Day, and my Mother is actually here, AND we need to be drinking mimosas at the Claremont in 30 short minutes, I need to keep it tight.

    I bought Mom L'Eau (Serge Lutens) for her day. She loves it, so score 1 for me.

    Your "fleshy middle aged thighs" are the envy of all your friends. That's just a little truth in advertising for all your fans who haven't seen your rockin', rock hard, Brazilian samba dancers body!

    I had a dog in college that lived to roll in dead things. A dog-wise person told me its because dogs have hunter instincts, and if you smell like death, your prey doesn't realize you're there. It thinks your just a random dead thing. But don't you think prey would be savvy enough to realize that dead things don't usually chase you? Whatever. Point is, you're right, dogs LOVE to smell like Death.

    This rocks my little Eastern Philosophy/Western shadow-work loving heart. I want to get all theoretical about how maybe it's their comfort with non-being that makes dogs such happy creatures? Pre/Trans fallacy, I know, but I also know you anthropomophize your critters as much as I do, so you'll tolerate it.

    Oh heavens I'm so glad for this post. I miss your long musings. I love the new blog, don't get me wrong, but I miss the fullness of your voice. Maybe your thoughts on scent "save the world" too. They certainly make my world a richer.

  4. I hope Lily and Rocky gave you a great mother's day. And I was laughing my butt off at Eau de Dead Seal! hahaaa!

    Good to see you posting!

  5. I love this post. I love that you are posting again... (no expectations, but appreciation).

    Moms... the heaviest and most beautifully complex of topics,and an equally complexly beautiful post. Jene Nate was in our house, did I buy it for her for mother's day one year? I remember buying my father Old Spice for father's day. So many lifetimes ago, that I couldn't recall what either smell like, just the memories that they unfurl. Which is also what your beautiful post did, opened up the magic olfactory time machine and brought back the days of not wine and roses, but alcohol and lemongrass.
    Thanks you!
    Happy mother's day to you, and us all!

  6. Coll that you decided to write here again. Welcoem back. :)

    I´ve been thinking about dogs and their sense of smell lately, I have also a dog, Troya 1½ year old mutt. First of we saw a movie "Hachiko" about a dog, totally sentimenatal all the family cried at the end. Then I start thinking about making a film for a dog audience and realised they probably would prefer a story told in smells rather than in pictures??? They are our best friends, and I´m sure they figure out how we´re working much better than the other way around.

    I always let my dog smell my perfumes, some of them make her frown, some of them she like to lick on. I belive she prefer sweet gourmand scents that smells like vanilla fudge and cookies.

    /perfumenerd aka Annelie

  7. Hi Ines!! (Waving furiously through the Interwebs!!!) So nice to be back. Working (what's that?!?!) for the next few weeks so don't expect anything for a while. But it is nice to know I had one more post in me. Kisses!

  8. Hi there, Queen Cupcake!! Yes, you bring up a fact of (yours and my) family life that I spent a long time puzzling over-- I can completely understand why women back-in-the-day had one child, even a second. The expectations to do so were-- not just enormous-- it was like all there was in life. Life = get married + have kids. But why so many? Once a woman knew what went into it.

    Sounds like your mother was a *little* older than mine-- the pill might have been out of the question for her. My mother was having us 8-10 years after the pill was in full swing. Had she been born even a few years later, might have had the mental and emotional framework to skip kids altogether.

    So isn't it wonderful to know that you get to be the very best fur mom in the world? Sounds like you garden for your kitties maximum pleasure-- I'm sure they love it!

    I did not ever smell VitaBath-- I can't even say that I've ever heard of it. Is it still around? Another bath-splashy kinda thing?

  9. Hiya CV!!! (Blogger ate my comment--grrrr!)

    So what I mostly said was this: I've also heard that theory that rolling in dead stuff throws up a diversion that tricks prey. I say Wha huh? I mean, all the little subtle things prey have developed over the eons to keep from getting eaten. It seems like a sensitivity to the smell of dead stuff might have evolved along with it.

    But what do I know? I know that I'm in total denial about the fact that my little fur-ball couch potatoes are genetically hardwired to stalk and to kill. I think it's cute and call it "playing" when they growl and rat their stuffed toys. But they are playing at death just like little kids playing "bang 'em up shoot 'em up" with their toy guns.

    Thanks, Sweetness, for your support-- as always. I'm super glad too I had at least one more post in me. We'll see what the next few months bring...

  10. Hi there, BF-- Nice to see you!! I've missed checking you out. Will head over there directly.

  11. Hi there, Ka-- don't you think a museum of smells would be such a great idea? All those old products-- vintage Jean Nate and Old Spice and Brut, and crayons, and Play Doh, and all those things.

    I'm afraid to try the "new" Jean Nate-- you know how if something smells even just a little bit off it's no damned good at all? That's what I'm afraid of...

  12. Hi there, Rebella!! I *love* that you let your dog smell your perfumes-- I love that she reacts to them!! So funny!

    I think only one scent got Rocky sniffing at me one time-- I can't remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it had a civet note in it-- reminiscent of "Eau de Cul" perhaps?

  13. Hey! Nice to see that you're back! This post made me laugh - Eau de Dead Seal, fantastic!

    Mothers are a very complex topic. Unfortunately, I never found a way of getting on with my mum.

  14. Hi there, Beautiful Things! Thanks-- it's nice to be back. Yes. Mothers. Hmmmm. What I've arrived at in the past few years is that my history with my mother will always be unresolved, and now it's a question of coming to peace with that.

  15. a word, rockin'.

    I'll start easy, and first register the throw-way joke: pee-mail. No kidding! I know all the spots in the local park where other dogs leave their messages, and am always intrigued when a new one turns up. All "read" by my dog, but of course.

    Oh, the dead carcass..wait, that's redundant...anyway, that's where I headed straightaway when you brought up "what dogs like." Just the other day, the woman behind us shrieked when she opened the door to let in her dog and berated her dog for being terrible and disgusting. I felt bad for the dog. My dog had been lying at attention on our side of the fence for over 10 minutes, nose and gaze steadily upon the fence boards. Clearly, SOMETHING good was on the other side, and somebody else had it.

    A dog is a dog.

    The only smell I can think of to put in a bottle and "give" to a dog would be grass. But I have a feeling that which registers as "grass" to me is not why my dog love to do a weird sort of aircraft semi-crash landing starting with his ears and scooching his whole side along in happy forceful lolling.

    Jean Nate was my mom, too. She'd keep it in the refrigerator in the summer. And gave me a bottle when I turned twelve, because I was "getting older, but not too old."

    It was absolutely worth the trip to find the gate into your Barbara Bui. :)

  16. Rita -- How nice to be back at your blog!
    And what a blast from the past to see a bottle, with that iconic cursive font, of Jean Naté! Living outside the US for so long now, you forget about certain everyday products after a while, esp. those you didn't really consciously notice in the first place. (Meaning, I guess I'm not really the Jean Naté target group.)
    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to share this post in your usual in-depth, high-quality style. Looking forward to your next reviews!
    Take care,

  17. Hi there, ScentSelf!! Grass.....ex-cellent idea.... Although I'm sure you are right that whatever we think of as a grass smell is some pale, vapid facsimile of what the dogs smell when they are in it...

    I know Angela also wrote about putting JN in the refrigerator. Now, that seems kinda decadent to me--a true cool splash-- I like it!

    Since writing this, all bragging about my memory of JN aside, I've been craving to smell it again. But only the early 70's version, and I fear that that is just too...well, I don't know what the word is, but I doubt a bottle of vintage JN of sound provenance is going to show up on FleaBay anytime soon...

  18. Hi there, Sweet Michael!! Well, yes, you are probably *not* the true JN demographic.

    But I can see that life is still treating you oh-so-well-- your blog is a vicarious vacation, as ever, to La Dolce Vita! But stop by to see me any time!

  19. You simply must keep posting - I love your blog! Come visit at

    Looking forward to future postings!

  20. Hi there, Josephine!! Thank you so much for the encouragement- I will certainly try!

    And YOUR blog is adorable!!

  21. Well, it is May 18th and I don't know how I have managed to miss this post till tonight, but I am so glad to see you back, and as ever what a fascinating multi-faceted piece it was too! Can't comment on Jean Nate, though the analogy with your mother's propensity to shrink from life's hurlyburly was touchingly drawn, and I don't really care for dogs (sorry - cat person!) or Barbara Bui (dodgy heliotrope note somewhere), but I was totally engrossed just the same.

    Interesting that you say you cannot smell the dog's toy's distinctive scent, because I feel sure I could. Non doggy people are usually hyperosmic to the scent of dogs and dog-related accoutrements in the homes and cars of their dog-owning friends.

    Going back to canine perfumery - and with the dead seal one I am sure you are on to a winner! - didn't Lyn Harris famously develop a fragrance for dogs? I expect she has been trying to live it down every since.

    My dear friend Clare, whose photos of cockers on Flickr have attracted a global following - one of them bears a kennel name I had the privilege of suggesting (Lily Petitgrain) -has bought a dog perfume of some kind - I don't think it was a shampoo, but I must check. And it wasn't a Miller Harris neither...

  22. Hey, just popped by to say hello and that I miss your voice. Hope you're doing alright out there. :)

  23. Howdy D!! SO nice to hear from you-- I was checking by for a while and you weren't around.

    The Other Nostril and I are down in Argentina for 10 weeks-- not sniff-related, but if you want to check out my baby blog about our life in Buenos Aires, go to

    ⁄⁄ ¡Besos!

  24. Cool, maybe Jean Naté might be a perfect gift to my mom too.

    discount perfume