Black pepper and pink pepper are two popular top notes in perfumery, though pink peppercorns are not, strictly speaking, true pepper. Black pepper—true pepper—comes from the Piper nigrum plant. Its essential oil is distilled from the dried berries, or peppercorns. Pink peppercorns are the fruits of the Schinus molle tree. Both have a woody, stimulating, warm, clean-spice character. Black pepper is more sharp, where pink pepper is softer, and sometimes has subtle floral or fruity aspects. Pepper has high odor intensity, and a little bit can help bring definition to a blend.
Jazmin SaraiOtis & Me is, to me, the ideal black pepper-forward scent. Accented by incense smoke and the grit of dry coffee grounds, its character is simultaneously “dirty” and “clean,” like black pepper itself.
And of course, Blackpepper by Comme des Garcons does justice to its namesake: dry and woody, crackling with cedar and agarwood, with just a hint of tonka bean to smooth out the sharp edges.
For pink pepper, XinuCopala is a beautiful example—bright and sweet with vanilla, made monastic with copal resin and mesquite smoke. Pink pepper bridges these two sides and forms the backbone of the perfume.
Anna ZworykinaMy Vanilla puts black pepper at the top of a complex, spiced vanilla, with woods, resins, green galbanum, and a sweet floral heart.
In Pink MahogHanyGent, black pepper and rosewood provide balance for a soft pineapple note.
Fig in perfumery can be interpreted in several different ways. A perfumer can focus on the fruit itself—though they rarely do. Often, a fig scent encompasses the whole tree: leafy, green, and woody. Fig scents often have a milky or creamy facet (in perfumery this is often described as “lactonic”) that lends itself to coconut and sandalwood pairings.
There is no natural material distilled or created from the plant (there was once a fig leaf absolute, but it is no longer made due to its irritant properties), so it is made through combinations of aroma molecules. One way to make a simple fig accord is to combine a green tomato-leaf note such as stemone, a blackcurrant/fruity note such as labienoxime and/or damascones, a creamy/milky note such as gamma octalactone, and something woody like vertofix coeur.
Classics of the fig genre include L’Artisan ParfumeurPremier Figuer, a prolific fig tree, leaves rustling, pungent with sap, with whispers of almond and sandalwood. DiptyquePhilosykos is a glossy landscape of leafy fig trees and cool, clear water. Hermes Un Jardin En Mediterranee transports me to an idyllic scene, somewhere sunny and manicured by the sea. Fig leaf combines with cedar, cypress, and lemon-citrus notes to create the idea of salty ocean air.
My favorite fig perfumes hover in the soft milky-green family, such as NishaneWulong Cha—oolong tea, stems, wood, and milky lychee and fig.
Go further in the direction of coconut and you’ll find DS and DurgaDebaser, a blunt snapped fig branch, unsweet coconut shavings, iris and dry woods.
Maya NjieTropica uses fig to temper its beachy pineapple. Fig blends on one side with coconut and sandalwood, and on the other side locks arms with iris to create a boundary line, gentle restraint.
On the woodier side of fig we find Pierre GuillaumeBois Naufrage: clean musks and the condensation of salty marine air on the wood of a fig tree.
LubinFigaro combines green fig with greener vetiver and apple for a scent that is bright and bold and juicy as all get-out. I would call this fig green but not milky.
In Neela VermeireAshoka, fig plays a part in a much more complex whole: green fig leaf accents watery florals, including lotus and hyacinth. Its lightness moves into heliotrope and osmanthus, which in turn gives way to a leathery texture, complicated and soft.
One of the more interesting uses of a fig note is in Jazmin SaraiFayoum: ripe figs and dates in a clay pot, warming in the sun, dust and dirt in the air.
AftelierFig is an interesting perfume because Mandy works only with natural/botanical materials, so she has none of the synthetic molecules listed above to draw upon. Her Fig is not a fig tree scent, but the scent of the fruit itself. She uses a jammy fir absolute, jasmine sambac, a fruity lavender, and citrusy yuzu to create the illusion of a ripe, fleshy fig.
Last December, I used up my decant of Serge LutensFille en Aiguilles (“girl in needles,” a resinous, jammy pine), so this year I ordered another. It smells to me like an elegant Christmas forest with accents of Gothic cathedral.
Aftelier’s solid perfume Fir imparts that Christmas tree scent: pure green fir needles.
SlumberhouseNorne smells like jammy fir absolute and the incense-scented forest floor. Luca Turin called it a “feral growl” of a perfume.
Etat Libre d’OrangeNoel au Balcon is a playful gourmand, sweet-spiced-honeyed gingerbread, orange zest in the air, and a subtle smooth plastic note that I’ve heard people describe as “plastic dinnerware.” It smells like a holiday party with your fondest friends, and not over Zoom.
ArquisteNanban is smooth and elegant with its saffron-spiced leather, soft osmanthus, black tea, balsam wood, frankincense and myrrh. Something about it smells like Christmas to me—a very stylish Christmas, like attending a holiday cocktail party wearing suede in taupe and burgundy.
What perfumes and smells do you use to evoke Christmas?
The smell of mothballs brings back memories of the Old Home Place, a family home in rural East Texas that was built in 1898 and last inhabited in the 1970s. When my family and I entered the house for the first time in decades, there were mothballs in every room, in glass bowls like they were white buttermints. Over the next few years, the house grew large in my personal mythology. I never met my great-aunts, but I sorted through their belongings like treasure, even wore their dresses. The smell of mothballs brings to mind the duality of my relationship to the Old Home Place: simultaneously intimate and intrusive.
“Smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” —Diane Ackerman
Smell Words is a collection of 160 words, small articulations in a sea of pleasure and exaltation, created in collaboration with Noele Lusano.
Get your copy of Smell Words + the first zine, Smelling Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Smells + two paper strips dipped in special edition scents to enjoy and find the words for. $10 shipped. Temporarily sold out, but a new print run is in the works. To get on the list for the next print run, send me a message.
“this is what my strength is: challenging people to use their nose gives them new methods to approach their realities. There is a playful aspect about discovering the world through smells and discovering more about ourselves and our potential to interact with our environment. A more comfortable relationship with smells brings about a more optimistic attitude toward our surroundings. It changes mood. And I think we need more optimism and a more positive attitude to be able to understand the seriousness of what we face: new challenges, new methods, new methodologies, new tools…” —Sissel Tolaas
The scent of amber. No, it’s not made from the kind of amber used in jewelry, or the kind of amber that preserves dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park, though it’s meant to evoke that kind of image: warm, golden, glowing.
Traditionally*, amber is an accord of vanilla and the resins benzoin (top left) and labdanum (bottom left), which are darker, sweeter, and stickier-smelling than other resins such as frankincense. Amber accords often include patchouli, spices, rich woods, incense, or any number of other materials or aroma molecules—but in general, an amber note is meant to evoke a warm, rich, resinous glow.
Amber accords show up so often in perfumery and can be executed in so many different ways that it’s hard to point to just a handful of examples. Some people argue that the word is used and abused so much in perfumery that it’s meaningless, and they have a point. But I still find it useful when I smell and describe scents.
My favorite “quintessential amber” perfumes include Rania JAmbre Loup, a spicy amber as thick as tar with wisps of smoke, yet with the fizzy-sweet coca-cola character I get from benzoin. Olympic OrchidsOlympic Amber is a woody, incense-inflected amber with patchouli.
Many perfumes use amber as a base for a floral heart—AftelierAlchemy is a perfect example of this classical structure. Atop its amber base is a heart of jasmine, ylang ylang, and rose, with light citrus and a touch of pepper up top. Sometimes perfumes encase their star materials in amber, such as Jovoy’s ambered patchouli Psychedelique, or Masque Milano leathery ambered rose Tango.
*Note: sometimes In perfumery, “amber” can refer to ambergris—a fascinating and extremely weird material produced by sperm whales, a topic for another day—but more often, it refers to this vanillic-resinous blend. A Library of Olfactive Material calls this “amber jaune,” or yellow amber, to distinguish it from ambergris (gray amber).
My first risograph zine! “smelling is forgetting the name of the thing one smells” / “there are smells I never had a name for”
This idea is something I keep returning to, and one I’ll keep expanding on in other projects. The title is a play on Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Lawrence Weschler’s book about California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin. For me, it expresses the question of the role of language in our experience of smell. Does language expand our experience or does it limit it? In some ways, reading a scent description flattens or constricts our perceptions. It stops us short. But in other ways it does the opposite, pushing us further and offering new ways to understand what we encounter.
This is further complicated by the fact that we notoriously do not have language for so much of what we smell. As Diane Ackerman wrote: “It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues—but no closer—and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”
More to come on this topic. In the meantime, if anyone would like a copy of this zine, I have some extras! Use the contact form to send me your mailing address.
Sometimes I think there should be some kind of Bechdel test for smell in novels. Are there at least two smells in the story and do they affect the characters’ actions? Do they give the reader information we didn’t already have?
Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl would pass that test—scent is the thread of continuity between the protagonist, who was born with the strong and unpleasant body odor of durian fruit, and her semi-mythological origins. It’s how she recognizes the girl she loves across lifetimes. I was struck not only that scent played such a major role in characters’ identities, but also that the narrator was conscious of smell in the way she navigated through her world—knowing that she had to move slowly to sneak out of the house, because a sudden rush of her body odor would give away her movements. That she could camouflage her smell in smellier surroundings.
Musks in perfumery are like the base notes below the base notes, amplifying everything above them. Musk molecules are large, which means they’re slower to evaporate, adding staying power and “oomph” to any blend they’re in.
Originally, perfumer’s musk came from the musk deer and other animals including civet cats and beavers (castoreum). Today, true animal musks are no longer used, and have been replaced with synthetic musks. The only plant musk is made from the seeds of the ambrette flower, also known as musk mallow.
So what exactly does musk smell like? The answer is a tangled web of scent culture. Animal musks and their synthetic reconstitutions are often overpowering and unpleasant—think manure—unless they’re highly diluted. Dosed properly, they add magic to a blend. Musks can be plush, warm, powdery, creamy, grubby, funky, dirty, indolic, weighty, luxurious, musty, round, or soft.
Musks can also smell clean like laundry—primarily because they are the scent of clean laundry. The large molecules’ staying power makes them perfect for detergents and fabric softeners, which have to retain their scent through the laundry cycle. It’s a scent culture feedback loop: fragrance houses created new synthetic molecules and used them for laundry products, so now we associate their scent with cleanliness and warm, fresh laundry. (Some musk molecules do not degrade in water, causing harmful bioaccumulation, and are increasingly regulated / decreasingly used as a result.)
Some musks smell a little bit wet; some smell a little metallic. Some of them don’t have a smell at all—because the molecules are so large and heavy, about 50% of people are anosmic to (can’t smell) any given musk molecule. For this reason, most perfumes or scent applications will use a handful of different musk molecules, knowing that each person will only smell about half of the musks.