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Perfume picks: Best and worst of 2013, part two - the winners

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In part one of my year end roundup, I hit some of the low points. Now it's time for the highlights.
Once again our American independent artisan and natural perfumers have stepped into the breach and created wonderful fragrances unfettered by EU/IFRA restrictions or corporate focus groups. The very first “designer” fragrance that is 100% natural was made by Providence Perfume Company, the lovely Mousseline Péche. It was composed for fashion designer Jonathan Joseph Peters, a former Project Runway competitor, and the name is inspired by one of his favorite fabrics, silk mousseline. This is a truly delightful and feminine fragrance and it can stand toe to toe with any commercial designer scent. 2013 also brought us Branch & Vine from this brand, a wonderful green scent featuring tomato leaf and other unusual notes that smells like high summer in the garden.

I am a supporter of all-natural perfumery; this segment gets little respect from mainstream critics and industry giants, but modern natural perfumers have left the head shops behind and are quietly producing high quality fragrances with the finest materials. A major standout this year was Cuir de Gardenia by Aftelier Perfumes. Perfumer Mandy Aftel has created a spectacular and unusual fragrance combining real gardenia essence (a very rare material) and a natural leather accord for one of the most sensual perfume experiences in recent memory. This perfume melds with skin and body heat to become pure magic. It has landed on quite a few best-of lists already, and it's definitely on mine.

Another showstopper of 2013 was also from an independent house, Zelda by En Voyage Perfumes. Inspired by Zelda Fitzgerald and her tumultuous Jazz Age life, it's a wild ride and one of the most unusual things I smelled this year; bold, strong, sexy and intense, an Oriental style scent that has turned out to be quite polarizing. Its devotees (of which I am one) think it's great, while others can't understand what the fuss is about. In any event, it got people talking. To my nose it has echoes of what Coty's Emeraude used to be before the formula was cheapened, a modern tribute to a great classic but creating a similar effect with a completely different formula. I have no idea how this was accomplished but I love it. Its depth and intensity hit me where I live as soon as I smelled it. Shelley Waddington has made the most unexpected hit of the year.

A third California brand has given something good this year – Roxana Illuminated Perfume launched the unusual Figure 1: Noir, which is somewhat of a departure for perfumer Roxana Villa. It is dark and mysterious composition that features a very intense patchouli, blackcurrant and sandalwood. It has an air of intrigue that only deepens with time on the skin. I especially liked the solid version, but the liquid is equally wonderful.

One of this year's best perfumes was made right in our own backyard – Cape Heartache by Imaginary Authors. Portland perfumer Josh Meyer has managed to evoke the heart and soul of the Pacific Northwest with his latest composition, which is garnering much acclaim. While I was testing it, I really fell hard for this unusual fragrance that combines the outdoorsy aromas of pine and spruce with sweet strawberry and vanilla and really makes it work. It also gets my vote for the best perfume name of the year.

Of course American perfumers did not do all the good work – I also tested some outstanding natural fragrances made in Italy. Giardini Segreti and Milano Caffè by La Via del Profumo are two all-natural scents dedicated to places in perfumer AbdesSalaam Attar's (Dominique Dubrana) adopted country. Milano Caffè is an homage to the bustling urbanites of Milan, and anyone who loves coffee scents should really try it. It's a dark bitter brew made even more complex with spices, chocolate, woods and resins. I think it was meant more for men but I think it's a treat for anyone. Giardini Segreti is a loving tribute to the hidden gardens of Venice, composed of languid florals (rose and jasmine) with herbal notes, myrrh, subtle leather and ambergris – the real deal! It is a thing of great beauty that brings to mind ancient gardens abandoned by time, and forever timeless. This line has to be ordered from Italy, as it is not sold in stores in the U.S., but samples are available, and having tried many of the fragrances, I can say wit confidence that they are worth it if you find one or more that you really love.

In summary, I cannot choose only one perfumer as my “best of” this time around, since so much outstanding work was done by so many. Instead, let's celebrate 2013 as the year of the indie perfumers, whose talents have blown away the tepid offerings of the mainstream market and held their own against the overpriced luxury brands, and I know that there are many more that I have not had the chance to smell yet. Let us hope for more of the same in the future. My pick for best all natural perfume is Aftelier's incredible Cuir de Gardenia, which was also running neck and neck with my choice for best perfume overall; that honor goes to the beautiful Zelda by En Voyage Perfumes. I just can't get this haunting masterpiece off my mind.

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