Fragrance

By Rachel Goldman

Popular with everyone from Julia Roberts to George Washington, Caswell & Massey has a long of tradition of providing customers with quality products, actually the longest. Established in 1752, it is America’s oldest perfumer as well as its oldest consumer brand. They even served the first cola to their pre-War of Independence customers while they flipped their white wigs and waited for their top-of-the-line beauty products to arrive in cute green-striped bags. However soda is not their specialty, it is their fragrances that distinguish them as an American staple. So I decided to take a trip into the past and see if there was anything worth the attention (and debit-card swipes) of modern women.

My time machine was efficient, cheap and smelled a bit like urine (okay it was the 6 train), and it placed me at the swanky corner of 48th and Lexington, where the flagship store lies adjacent to the Barclay Hotel. Illyana, the assistant manager showed me around and tripped over words like absinthe (abas-sand-chif) glycerin (gleek-iran) in a thick Bulgarian accent. However, her expertise was as impressive as the mountains of fun beauty products and great gift ideas I found, set on polished hardwood floors.

As it turns out, a purchase at Caswell and Massey is a downright patriotic act. George Washington loved to dab a little cologne #6 on his pulse points before crossing the Delaware River, and regularly used their products to woo foreign dignities. Some his leftover #6 sits in the Smithsonian, but if you want a full bottle for the man in your life you can pick up a 3-ounce bottle for $28. Or if JFK was more your taste, pick up his signature, Jockey Club, which is a full-bodied spicy, masculine scent.

But enough about the boys, the woman’s fragrances was just as interesting. Most of the products from their own lines run between $9 and $30. The Elixir of Love #1, the “original potion for love everlasting,” stood out in particular since Valentine’s Day steadily approaches. This line has satisfied customers reporting back great results and often way too many details about their enhanced love lives. A mix of jasmine, lavender, Egyptian musk and passionflower, this soft scent is undeniably romantic, as my friend Rebecca insists, “It feels like lying on soft white sheets with the sun soaking through the windows”. Woah. Try it in a 3-ounce bottle for $30 or a fun solid perfume for $12.

My personal favorite of the bunch was Casma. The preferred scent of Greta Garbo is a blend of magnolia petals, rose and jasmine accented with a touch of vanilla and ginger. It is actually available as a men’s cologne, but the woman’s version comes in cute mini high-heeled shoe so it’s really a no-brainer. The scent is very strong and very feminine, definitely great for a night out on the town in a short skirt.

Some other notables were the Cucumber line, which Julia Roberts prefers, and Gift of the Sea line, which smells like an ocean breeze. I picked up the Cucumber Shea Butter ($20), which fights extra dry skin and supplies just enough fragrance. I also loved the Gift of the Sea Soothing Sea Salt, which make my modest New York City bathtub smell like a day at the beach (now all I need is a hot lifeguard).

If you can’t find anything that floats your boat, you can even create your own scent. Buy their dilutent or use some vodka, and choose between any of their essential oils. Barbara Compton, their chief product manager, recommends picking something like orange or rose and accenting it with sandalwood or vanilla; you can even add some eucalyptus for a refreshing touch. Experiment and have fun, for once you find your signature, you can even mix it with sweet almond oil and make your own personalized bath oil.

Barbara Compton told me at the end of our phone call, “the subliminal value of all fragrance is underestimated.” So treat yourself right, smell even better and take the 6 or the E or a cab and a friend, and head down to 518 Lexington Ave. for some good old-fashioned “affordable luxury.”

Caswell & Massey
518 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10017
(212) 755-2254
Monday to Friday 9-7, Saturday 10-6

Originally published February 2004
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