A look at the best department store perfumes

Left to right: Yves Saint Laurent, Shalimar, Terre D'Hermes and Bottega Veneta.
Left to right: Yves Saint Laurent, Shalimar, Terre D’Hermes and Bottega Veneta.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Most of us have a vague awareness that Mother’s Day is coming up (Sunday, May 11). But will we shop in a timely fashion—or will we race to the mall on May 10? Just in case you’re a planner, what follows is a guide to some of the best department store perfumes. (And if you tend to procrastinate, we suggest you save this in an easy- to -find place—for that last-minute spending spree.)

Name: Bottega Veneta

Distinguishing Characteristics: An incandescent 21st century floral with light lashings of leather (to remind us of their handbags) that envelops you like a sheer luxury veil.

Why It Matters: Rather than go the ubiquitous fruity floral route of so many contemporary perfumes, BV created a smooth, elegant composition that is unlike anything else on the market.

Why We Love it: Light enough to wear to the office, but will radiate subtly for hours. Men, there’s also a great Bottega Veneta Homme and even an Eau Legere for women who want something more evanescent.


Name: Paris by Yves Saint Laurent

Distinguishing Characteristics: This 1983 creation by master perfumer Sophia Grojsman is a perfectly balanced essay in rose-- buttressed with violet, well-blended florals and green notes.


Why It Matters: As much as we like edgy, fashion- forward scents swirling with dark mystery, sometimes we just want to smell all girly like that Psychedelic Furs song that goes: “Pretty in pink, isn’t she?.”

Why We Love It: This isn’t your grandmother’s tea rose, it’s the timeless rose of fairy tales and Francesca Lia Block novels.


Name: Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko and Shalimar

Distinguishing Characteristics: Classic French perfumery from yesteryear with the complexity and eternal appeal of smoldering femme fatales, Deco lamps and Parisian couture.

Why It Matters: Guerlain has been making perfume since the late 1800s and its expertise shows in these masterful compositions whose influence has been eroded by shifting tastes and reformulation but, like a royal dowager, retain their elegant bone structure.

Why We Love It: After taking these grand dames out for a whirl, you might mistake your L’Eau D’Issey and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue for tap water. Early 20th century Guerlains can be an acquired taste along the lines of caviar, Taleggio cheese, and single malt scotches. But oh the joys to be savored on this journey of discovery.


Name: Aramis by Estee Lauder

Distinguishing Characteristics: Citrus, oakmoss, clary sage and other Mediterranean herbs, vetiver, patchouli, sandalwood, leather.

Why It Matters: This 1965 composition by genius nose Bernard Chant is so old it’s new again, just like Clinique’s 1971 rosy herbal ambery Aromatics Elixir for women, another winner. But apply both of these potent classics lightly.

Why We Love It: Sometimes we get weary of metrosexual fragrances and want a man to smell Old School sexy, like Don Draper in the boardroom or Clint Eastwood riding off into the sunset. Bonus points because this classic hasn’t been watered down or gussied up.


Name: Spicebomb by Viktor & Rolf

Distinguishing Characteristics: spicy fruity with pink pepper and woods on a vetiver, leather and tobacco base.

Why It Matters: We’re tired of boring aquatics, and this spicy concoction makes us want to nuzzle our guy’s neck when we’re not stealing it out of his bathroom cabinet to wear ourselves.

Why We Love it: It was designed by second generation perfumer Olivier Polge, who’s now Chanel’s in-house scent sorcerer. They know talent when they see it.


Name: Narciso Rodriguez for Her

Distinguishing Characteristics: Radiant orange, rose, woods and amber accented with musk. It’s the olfactory equivalent of a Dan Flavin neon artwork and lasts well into the next day.

Why It Matters: Regardless of whether you love it or hate it (there’s little in between), this 2003 composition by star noses Christine Nagel and Francis Kurkdjian, (who later launched his own niche line), is one of the first classics of the 21st century. Aroma chemicals have been part of perfumery since a German lab synthesized vanillin in the late 1800s, and NR is a perfect illustration of how these ingredients can amplify a fragrance to sexy, wonderful effect.

Why We Love It: With its layered notes, there’s something for everyone here. And it’s actually two different fragrances. The eau de toilette (black bottle) is more sparkly orangey and white florals with musk and amber while the eau de parfum (pink) is a tad richer, with amber and patchouli. A perfect year-round fragrance for Southern California. But sample first, as some people claim they can’t smell the musk and others find it too synthetic.


Name: Terre d’Hermes

Distinguishing Characteristics: This top-notch cologne opens with zesty orange, grapefruit and green notes and mineral-rich earth, mixes in herbs and spice and dries down smooth with vetiver.

Why it matters: In a world filled with bland aquatic clones, Terre d’Hermes exudes the easy elegance of a white ironed shirt and a loosened tie on a Friday night oceanfront balcony . Plus it was created by a master of the perfume world, Jean-Claude Ellena, who wrote the memoir “Diary of a Nose.”

Why we love it: It’s the olfactory equivalent of drinking a crisp Gruner Veltliner in the Austrian Alps on a cool summer evening after a day of hiking and collecting edelweiss. Smells just as good on women


Name: Bulgari Eau Perfume Au The Vert

Distinguishing Characteristics: Citrus, pepper, cardamom, rose, jasmine, green tea, tonka BEAN????? and beeswax.

Why it Matters: Tea scents are a dime a dozen these days, but this 1993 composition was arguably the first. It was the created by the versatile Jean Claude Ellena for the Bulgari jewelry stores when they decided to branch into perfume, and 21 years later, it’s still a classic.

Why We Love It: Perfect for off hours and low-key enough for the office. It’s ethereal yet grounded on the skin. It might relax you with its homey vibes or perk you up with its spice, but its sure to have colleagues sniffing the air and asking what’s that lovely tea you’re drinking.


Name: Lolita Lempicka original

Distinguishing Characteristics: This is a woody, sweet “gourmand” scent with notes of vanilla, woods, violet, musk and spices, including anise.

Why It Matters: It’s easy to overdo sweet notes in perfumery and this one keeps all the notes in perfect balance, receiving 5 stars from Victoria Frolova in the acclaimed Bois de Jasmin perfume blog. Ground-breaking when it first appeared, Lolita Lempicka has quickly become a modern classic.

Why We Love It: It’s like spraying on the yummiest, most delicate and appealing aromatic desert. Plus we love the girly jewel-like purple bottle.


Name: Tom Ford Sahara Noir

Distinguishing Characteristics: A dark, scrumptious blend of bergamot, spices, incense, tobacco, cedar and amber in the elegant and utilitarian TF bottle.

Why it Matters: Edgy and unusual for a mall scent. Think Lawrence of Arabia striding through the souk. Because it contains incense and other exotic notes, Sahara Noir also makes a great gateway fragrance into the world of niche perfumes.

Why We Love it: Totally unisex.


Name: Chanel No. 5 and all its iterations

Distinguishing Characteristics: fizzy champagne-like aroma chemicals called aldehydes heighten the sweet and dark bouquet of jasmine, rose and ylang, easing into base notes of sandalwood, spice, woods and vanilla.

Why It Matters: No. 5 is the most iconic perfume in the world, and everyone interested in fragrance needs to try it. Besides, what other perfume has its own biography – “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume” by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Why We Love It: Whether your grandmother wore the classic parfum years ago or your daughter wears the modernized Eau Premiere today, No. 5 comes in enough variations that there is something here for everyone. Go light with Eau de Toilette or more exotic with Eau de Parfum (a completely different scent that stresses sandalwood and incense facets). There’s also scrumptious bath oil, and to bring in the lucrative youth market, Chanel has also tweaked and modernized No. 5 with Eau Premiere and Elixir Sensual.