My dad has a lot of catchphrases. Like “Hey, Lover!” bellowed at the baffled newspaper boy who’s only turned up to collect his money. Or “Hiya Sweetlips!” barked at a nonplussed saleswoman in a department store. Or “Oh! You shaved!” by way of greeting my thankfully tolerant husband.
Dad calls it “giving them the needle”. His theory is that if people can take what he dishes out, no matter how bizarrely inappropriate, then they’re all right. If they laugh through the tension, or fling a quick zinger back -- Augie eases off and it’s tea and Milanos all around.
At this stage of the game, I’m a veteran of being on the receiving end of the needle, whether it’s from my father or the angry Britney Spears fans who take exception to my referencing the less salubrious aspects of her character in my Hidden Fantasy review. But I never expected to be given the needle by a perfume.
When I first encountered The Different Company Sel de Vétiver, I eagerly grabbed the bottle. Where vetiver is involved, I have the 7-second goldfish memory.
“Sel de Vétiver? I love vetiver!”
Sure, I love vetiver. Until I actually smell it in a perfume. Then I make the John Mayer guitar-playing face and go, “Yak! What is this stuff? It’s harsh.”
The fragrance counter jockey will give me a look.
My problem with the aroma of this tropical weed is that it’s so damn dense. I enjoy its pungent, smoky grassiness, but at a remove. The leftover smell on my clothes the day after I’ve spritzed a bit is good enough for me. Otherwise, vetiver is just too inescapably there. Lalique Encre Noire practically sets off the smoke detectors. Chanel Sycomore is like a brick of hashish rammed up my nostril.
And Sel de Vétiver gives me the needle. It’s sharp and annoying. Grapefruit is involved, and it’s the smell of the bitter pith, not the sweet citrus pulp. But mostly, there’s that vetiver, leaden and thick, shipped in from a heavy gravity planet.
Then something happens. I stop resisting Sel de Vétiver and start to pay attention. There’s a ginger bite. I detect a distant floral echo -- the listed notes say ylang ylang. It’s a savory-sweet bloom, real voluptuous, but here, the volume’s turned way down. I only catch wisps of the ylang ylang through the green-grey haze of grass and smoke and...what the -- salt? I know, I know, it says “Sel” on the bottle, but perfumer Celine Ellena is not pussyfooting around with the saline.
Once I tune into that intense mineral element, it feels so dry that my mouth almost starts to water. Then the salt ushers in a clean sweetness, and the whole thing finishes up smelling like warm skin by a cold ocean. And that is not only the opposite of “Yak!” -- it’s downright transfixing.
Looks like Sel de Vétiver gave me the needle, and I stuck it out. Tea and Milanos all around, Dad!
"Chalk Pebble Beach" by Paul Allison