When I was a little girl, there was a shop in my town called Flowers & Co. It sold flowers, and company, which was defined as lots of scented drawer-liners and silver picture frames and a range of gentle, perfumed toiletries. Once or twice a year, when I had saved up a little money, I would walk down the hill and choose a shell-shaped jojoba gift soap, or a tiny floral-wrapped sachet.
One year I had more money than usual and I splurged on my first bottle of body wash. It was Caswell-Massey’s “Elixir of Love No. 1.” Now, at this age, I knew no more of romance than the love between two Ginny dolls dressed in tiny gowns and tuxedos, or the Betamax love between seven kidnapped brides and seven dancing brothers in brightly colored shirts, interrupted by commercials. And yet the notion of a powerful love potion enflamed my babyish imagination. I loved the exotic, cobalt-blue bottle with its golden top. And the smell — a mixture of jasmine, lavender, Egyptian musk, and passionflower — was soft and enticing, the way I imagined ladies in Victoria magazine to be.
Caswell-Massey has been in the perfume business since the late-18th century, and “Elixir of Love” is a very old recipe. It’s a little sweet, and a little powdery. But here is the thing: It’s a great scent. Long after I grew into real perfume — flirting with ’90s androgynes I never really liked and sickly Gap body sprays and, later, the green florals I actually loved — and put away other childish things, EOL retained a place on my dresser.
Part of it, it’s true, is the sheer beauty of the bottle. It’s a classic, both Victorian and somehow Deco, unabashedly mysterious and old-fashioned yet sleek. And if you get the full array of lotion, body wash, and perfume spray, it instantly ups the glam quotient of your bureau or bathroom by a factor of ten.
But the scent, like the packaging, manages to be timeless without dowdiness. It’s light, on its own — probably light enough for a little girl — but I usually wear it layered. Under En Passant or OdeJo or Diptyque Rose or anything else, it provides an elusive, ladylike base note that — with modern scents — is somehow exotic. A different perfume can bring out the hints or floral, or musk, and transform it into something complex but always lovely. In the summer, I use the talcum powder, and needless to say it makes for a happy bath even for a grown-up. It is, and always will be, the smell of — if not love, exactly — romance.
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