Discount Diamonds: Elizabeth & James Nirvana French Grey- WandaScent

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One of the great collections of inexpensive fragrance is the one created by the twin celebrities Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Starting in 2014 they released pairs of perfumes under the label of Elizabeth & James. Back then when I wrote about it, I mentioned the name came from the ladies’ younger, less famous, siblings. Revisiting that statement in 2021 the distaff side of the name is no longer the less anything to her sisters. Elizabeth Olsen has been a brilliant actor in the streaming series WandaVision. The twins turned out to have their own version of precocious vision as they moved into fashion and fragrance.

When it came to these perfumes the idea was to design simple easy-to-wear constructs. That isn’t an uncommon target for many modestly priced brands. What always seemed to set this collection apart was the choice of three tightly integrated keynotes. Each of the six releases are designed with this in mind. Elizabeth & James Nirvana French Grey was part of the lest set of two in 2017. Perfumers Nicole Mancini and Linda Song use lavender, neroli, and musk as the trio to build this with.

What all the perfumes do in this collection is to sandwich one multi-faceted ingredient between two others. Using the variability to move back and forth between the two it forms a more dynamic fragrance than you might expect from just three ingredients.

Lavender plays the part of the ingredient with facets. In French Grey it is sandwiched between neroli and musk. The herbal nature of the lavender resonates with the green floral scent of neroli. Early on you get a slightly green floral accord. As the lavender shifts towards the musk it shows off its powdery side. It creates a lightly powdered skin accord. Over the hours it stays on my skin the lavender seemingly pivots back and forth between the neroli and musk until it finally fades.

Nirvana French Grey has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

All six Elizabeth & James fragrances qualify as Discount Diamonds they are that good. Nirvana French Grey is just the best choice for these early spring days. If you are enjoying Elizabeth’s acting, you should see the vision her twin sisters bring to perfume.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Boss Number One- A Perfume Blazer

When I got my first job in 1984, I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe. One piece of clothing I always wanted was a great fitting blazer. I wanted that male version of a little black dress which I could wear on any occasion. When I went shopping, I found a Hugo Boss version which was just what I was looking for. That blazer traveled everywhere with me for years until the lining began to fall apart.  It was as much a part of my wardrobe as my current Hawaiian shirt and fedora are now.

This was also the early moments of the expansion of my perfume collection. I was in Macy’s one day in the mid 1980’s waiting for something. I was killing time at the men’s fragrance counter. The sales associate brought over a new one called Boss Number One. When I sniffed it, I realized this was in line with the scents I was trending towards in those days. I felt it had to be the cologne which would go with my blazer. Back in 1986-ish I just like the way it smelled. I now know a little more about why I liked it so much.

Pierre Wargnye

One of those reasons is it was perfumer Pierre Wargnye’s second perfume after the amazing success of Drakkar Noir. I was never one of those who gravitated towards that even though I recognized its quality. There were too many people wearing it I wanted something different. Boss Number One was a more nuanced style of fougere over his first one. He would add in a lot of grace notes through a central axis of herbs, honey, and tobacco.

The top accord seems to be the perfume version of one of those spice blends. I can pick out rosemary, cardamom, sage, and nutmeg most prominently. There are others on the edges, but it is those which form a green opening. A thread of rose winds its way though which is followed by the sweetness of honey. There is a lot of honey here and it is in the amount where on some people it will smell urine-like. On me it is all slightly animalic sweetness. The tobacco waiting to join it makes a satisfying duet. In my old bottle, a real chypre accord of patchouli, oakmoss, and vetiver form the foundation. For this review I got a small current tester, and it is here where the chypre has been mostly replaced with a cedar, patchouli, and vetiver accord which is an acceptable substitute.

Boss Number One has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

Almost as much as my Hugo Boss blazer my bottle of Boss Number One was in my travel bag. That’s because it was as versatile as my jacket.

Disclosure: this review is based on my original bottle and a newer one purchased this year.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Van Cleef & Arpels First- Playing Telephone

One of the difficulties of writing this column is deciding when a perfume from the past has been reformulated in a way that it is worth pointing out. If I think the original is awesome but it is because of banned materials like oakmoss and nitro musks, it causes a problem. Then when I try the currently available version I must see if it retains enough of the character to write about it as it exists today. One of the things which happens infrequently is the current version surpasses the original as has happened in Van Cleef & Arpels First.

I own an original bottle of First because it is one of perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s first. Released in 1976 it is a typical big floral. It is fun to smell something like this and think how M. Ellena will become famous for the antithesis of it. Lots of “to be banned” materials abound. It is exactly what a mid-1970’s floral perfume smelled like.

I was digging in the discount bins a year ago around the Holidays when this nice green chypre hit me from someone spraying it nearby. I went searching to see what it was. I probably picked up everything on the tester shelf but First because I thought I knew what it would smell like. When I finally figured out it was First, I was floored. Mainly because I liked this better.

I’ve spent the last year trying to find out who was responsible for this version. It is a thankless job that no one at the big brands will admit goes on. Tracking down the perfumer was going to take more effort than I was willing to exert.

One of the things I did do was track down some of the iterations that have been released between 1976 and now. What I found was a perfume version of the party game telephone. The way it is played is the first person is given a phrase which they whisper one time only into the ear of the person next to them. This repeats until it gets back to the person who started it. What generally happens is it has been changed in a funny non-intelligible way. Rarely it ends up with a new phrase which is related to the first one.

That is what happened with First. In a 1990-ish bottle the base has begun to be changed as the musks seem to have been changed. In an early Y2K version the floral heart has gone much greener as the overall early moments have dialed back the rose and jasmine power. Then we arrive at what you can buy now.

The current version starts off with some mandarin on top of a green accord of blackcurrant bud, narcissus, and muguet. Hair spray-like aldehydes add some sparkle. The rose and jasmine are still here but they are using one of the more expansive synthetic jasmines. It allows for more space for the narcissus and muguet to expand into. They become the primary counterpoint to the rose. It moves to a modern chypre base where sandalwood, amber, clove, and some synthetic musks form it. It fits ideally with what is here now.

All of this refers to the Eau de Parfum version. The current version has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

I think this game of “perfume telephone” has ended up in a better fragrance at the end of the chain. It can be found for less than $25/bottle at many discounters. If you remember the old First give the new one a try you might be surprised, too.

Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Stetson- I Wanna Be a Cowboy

While I have never ridden a horse or worked a ranch I do own a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. When I wear them I am a poser. I’d probably faint from exhaustion if I ever tried to do an honest day’s work on a ranch. That doesn’t mean I can’t imagine myself trying. In the world of fragrance there have been many perfumes which have tried to channel the cowboy way as their inspiration. One of the best comes from the designer of the iconic cowboy hat, Stetson.

Stetson was launched in 1981. This was the time of rugged masculine perfumes. In a few years they would be buried under a wave of fresh and clean aquatics. When Stetson debuted it was right in line with the other types of fragrances of the time. Perfumer Maureen Brooks would fashion a floral spicy woody classic.

The opening is a bright blend of citrus and lavender. The floral is given some depth, but it is the green of lavender caught in the sunniness of the lemon and bergamot. A set of spicy ingredients are combined with patchouli. Sandalwood and vetiver provide the woody component. It ends on a warm foundation of amber, vanilla, and balsam.

Stetson has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

I hadn’t thought about Stetson for a long time until I was in line at my local drugstore. I smelled the tester and found it to retain the appeal it had back when I first encountered it. It is an ideal fall choice. It also allows me to add one more piece to my “I Wanna Be a Cowboy” ensemble.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Sean John Unforgivable- The Exception

Those who have followed my reviews over the years know I think most celebrity scents are cynical. They use the name of the person on the bottle while that person has no idea what is in the bottle. I’ve been told of many celebrities who don’t smell the perfume until their first publicity experience. It irritates me that a fan of the celebrity coughs up their money for a product which has nothing from the person they admire.

Those who have read my reviews over the years know I am not a fan of multi perfumer teams. It may not be true, but it always reeks to me of focus groups and compromises. That the perfumes designed by committee also seem to have no soul anecdotally proves my point.

To everything there is an exception. Sean John Unforgivable manages to prove both of my thoughts incorrect.

Unforgivable was released in 2006 as the first fragrance from Sean Combs aka P.Diddy’s Sean John clothing line. He certainly found a dream team of creative people to work on this. Evelyn Lauder and Karyn Khoury would be co-creative directors overseeing a team of four perfumers; David Apel, Aurelien Guichard, Pierre Negrin, and Caroline Sabas. There isn’t a name I just listed that I don’t admire the heck out of. I just carried my usual skepticism over too many perfumers at the organ serving too many managers. However it happened Unforgivable turned out way better that I thought it would.

It opens with a burst of citrus as lemon and grapefruit add a tart initial impression. A smart use of Calone takes the melon-like quality of it as a lighter fruitiness underneath along with its fresh sea spray scent. It shifts to a fougere-like heart of iris, lavender, and herbs. Clary sage is the most prominent but there are some other green herbal pieces here too. It ends with a light sandalwood focused base accord given some warmth through amber and tonka bean.

Unforgivable has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

When it comes to perfume by committee celebrity scents Unforgivable stands out as one of the best. It can be found for less than $20 at almost any discount fragrance seller.

Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Versace Man Eau Fraiche- A Rougher Freshie

When it comes to this column there are a couple of brands which consistently land in my discount bins. One of them is Versace. What puzzles me a bit is what ends there is among the better offerings from the department store shelves where they once resided. While I am happy to get good perfume at a great price, I always wonder why it doesn’t sell. Versace doesn’t seem to be bothered by it as they keep producing new releases. On my last visit to the local discounter before quarantine happened, I picked up a bottle of Versace Man Eau Fraiche.

The name tells you everything “fresh water”. It is a typical fresh fragrance. What I have admired about many of the Versace releases is they take something which is overexposed and give it a different texture. For Eau Fraiche perfumer Olivier Cresp chose to rough up things, just a bit. This “freshie” gets knocked around a bit.

Olivier Cresp

It opens with a very delineated lemon which if left by itself would be reminiscent of furniture polish. M. Cresp rescues this by adding the light effect of rosewood to it. It is further taken into a cleaner woodiness through cedar. Instead of allowing the cedar to impart its fresh profile clary sage and tarragon convert the cedar to a rawer type of wood. This is like a split piece of green cedar given a jagged edge through the herbs. The wood used in the base is oak which has its own rough edges. It is still fresh wood but one with some olfactory splinters. Some amber and musks come along to smooth those rough edges over the final hours.

Man Eau Fraiche has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Man Eau Fraiche is that easy wearing summer tote bag kind of perfume. What gives it a tiny bit of difference is some of those recalcitrant pieces M. Cresp adds in. It makes it a rougher freshie.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Calvin Klein Eternity for Men- Casual Classic

There was a time in the 1980’s-90’s that Calvin Klein was one of the best brands in perfumery. Those days were kind of their moment in the spotlight. The perfumes from that time also carry a reminder of the changes that were taking place in consumer trends within perfumery. By 1989 Calvin Klein’s fragrance creative director Ann Gottlieb was looking to catch on to the wave of fresh scents that were just beginning their moment. Calvin Klein Eternity for Men is one of those.

Ann Gottlieb

Part of the appeal of this fresh tend in men’s fragrance was they also carried a casualness. It was meant to be the perfume equivalent of a white t-shirt. Ms. Gottlieb would ask perfumer Carlos Benaim to turn Eternity for Men into that.

Carlos Benaim

M. Benaim is an interesting choice because he had defined a type of powerhouse masculine woody ten years earlier with Ralph Lauren Polo. Eternity for Men feels as if he wanted to try and do the same with fresh and clean.

It opens on a fresh suite of herbs lifted with citrus. When you smell this now it is generic, but this was one of the earlier examples. M. Benaim adds an expansiveness that is the opposite of what he did with Polo. Geranium is the floral heart note used here in its traditional green rose role. The herbs provide a deepening of the floral while retaining that fresh quality. Vetiver is used in its typical summery way. The grassier citrus-like aspects are picked up by the herbs as well. It ends on a light woody accord of sandalwood.

Eternity for Men has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

I forgot how well this achieved its goals. It is a great casual fougere ideal for wearing out for a day of chores. Perfume would come to perfect this casual vibe over the next few years. Eternity for Men is one of the first. It is available in most discount bins I dig around in as well as almost every online discounter for under $25US. A true Discount Diamond.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Zara Cool Heights- The Best Diamond Mine at the Mall

The essence of this column is meant to remind you there are some great perfumes of past years that are now available for a modest price. There is a rarer source of fragrance for this column which is produced at a modest price from the beginning. They are generally not found in the most obvious of places. To find this month’s pick you would have to walk into a Zara menswear store at the mall. When you find the shelf holding the fragrances you will have found one of the best Discount Diamond mines at the mall.

Zara has been making perfume since 1999. They have consistently worked with some great perfumers who have made excellent perfumes. I didn’t discover it until one day in 2010 when I tried Zara Man Gold. I found a fascinating gourmand in a place I didn’t expect, for a price I didn’t expect. It became a regular stop on my mall visits, for the perfume.

I don’t know what caused the change but in 2018 Zara began producing perfume at a faster pace. It has continued ever since. I was concerned that the quality would drop with the increase in quantity. To my delight it didn’t. There were still jewels to be mined. I found Zara Cool Heights on my first visit after the New Year. It is an example of what exists within the collection.

Jerome Epinette

The perfumer behind Cool Heights is Jerome Epinette. M. Epinette has been behind many of the Zara releases. He is a perfumer who effortlessly achieves interesting perfume even on a small budget. Cool Heights is a citrus leather amber beauty.

The top accord is built around the versatility of Szechuan pepper. M. Epinette uses grapefruit and rhubarb with their sulfurous aspect to create a unique citrus accord that is nose catching. The leather accord at the heart is that scent of leather shoes polished to a high gloss. Not quite patent leather or leather jacket but something almost halfway between the two. The base accord is a warm amber given some sweet through tonka bean.

Cool Heights has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Cool Heights has been great throughout the spring as I’ve worn it a lot. It is a great thought for the upcoming Father’s Day if perfume is on your list for dad. Or you can give him a Zara gift card and let him go find his own Discount Diamond. This is a great place to find one.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: White Shoulders- Reformulation for a New Generation

Anyone who is of the Baby Boomer generation likely had a woman in their family who wore White Shoulders. It featured the white flowers of gardenia, tuberose and jasmine in a heady cocktail. It was a perennial best-seller for years. Then in the 1970’s it began a process of being sold to different brands each who would tweak the formula a little bit. Trying to make it more profitable. The original is a classic of its time which any perfume lover of white flower types of fragrance would enjoy. The current formulation of White Shoulders is a much lighter replica of that original perfume. It is the rare occasion where a formulation might have coincided with finding the current trend.

The original White Shoulders formulation was the epitome of what younger perfume lovers called “old lady” perfume. It was chock full of essential oils along with sandalwood, oakmoss, and civet. The white florals reeked of indoles to go with it. It is a perfume from a different era. The small bottle I have of that White Shoulders is just what I adore of perfumes from that time. It is a take no prisoners floral perfume. Not so the current formulation.

In the current version all the ingredients which were essential oils have been replaced by low-cost synthetics. Along with the problematic oakmoss and civet which have also been removed. In its current formulation it is like a classic Rolls-Royce has been entirely refurbished with everything being replaced with modern car parts. As much as I like the original, I also like the version it has been altered into.

This reformulation begins with tuberose, gardenia, and jasmine. Except these are the indole-free synthetic versions. These were created by perfume houses to give a floral lift. As used here they are much more expansive. Which works well with the aldehydes which have carried over from the original. This version now feels like a spring morning as the flowers are just scenting the air. Because the civet and oakmoss are gone the sandalwood has more work to do here. A less sweet synthetic version tries to put back some of the bite missing. It provides a nice woody grounding effect.

White Shoulders has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

For anyone who loved the original White Shoulders this is different enough that it is not going to remind you of it. You might come to like it or miss what is gone. For any younger perfume consumer who is looking for a lighter spring floral this current reformulation of White Shoulders should be ideal. It is right on trend. That it can be bought for around $20US almost anywhere makes the current version a Discount Diamond.

Disclosure: This review based on bottles of White Shoulders I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Bvlgari Eau Parfumee Au The Vert- First Haiku

As my closet is testament to, if you wait long enough every trend eventually comes back into style. As I wrote that I gazed at the perfume vault and realized the same thing holds there. As perfume trends go the 1990’s was one of the most vital at creating new genres and styles. Despite it being all the rage today, transparency was one of those. It was also a time where perfumers who were behind-the-scenes artists had some latitude. It would be another ten years before their names were as known as the brands they worked for. The first star perfumer is probably Jean-Claude Ellena. The perfume which probably defined the style he would refine for the next 25 years is Bvlgari Eau Parfumee Au The Vert.

To perfume lovers if you speak M. Ellena’s name they think of their favorite minimalist perfume from his time as in-house perfumer at Hermes. Many are surprised when I show them that style was apparent in 1993 with Au The Vert.

Jean-Claude Ellena

The simple brief given him was to create a perfume evoking a Japanese tea ceremony. He took this to heart considering the minimalist aesthetic of Japan. His thought was to streamline the composition down to a few essential ingredients. To keep the focus on the tea as you would at an actual tea ceremony. What comes to life is a vibrant perfume in just a few well-chosen notes.

The opening is the soft floral citrus of orange blossom. It is given definition using coriander and cardamom. The cardamom gives lift to the citrus character. The coriander captures the green undertone of the flower. The floral nature is given some depth with jasmine. This brings us to the green tea. It is a bit bitter. It is also very transparent. It rises in tendrils of steam through the top accord. Underneath it all is a light application of smoky woods as if the brazier the tea was heated on enters the scene.

Au The Vert has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

At the time this was released it was a best seller because there was nothing like it on the market. It was a perfume which wasn’t as forthright in its charms as the others on the department store fragrance counter. It is entirely on trend for today’s perfume customers. The nice thing is it falls into my Discount Diamonds cutoff as you can find bottles available for right around that $40 limit. I can tell you there are few perfumes out there which are better.

As M. Ellena would evolve the style begun here his creations would be called “Perfume Haiku”. Au The Vert was the first of those verses.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke