Perfume Note: Amber

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 J Ambre 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 Orchids Olympic Amber is a woody, incense-inflected amber with patchouli.

Many perfumes use amber as a base for a floral heart—Aftelier Alchemy 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).

Zine: Smelling is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Smells

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.

Printed by Paper Press Punch as part of their Zine of the Month Club.

Scent in Fiction: Salt Fish Girl

Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai

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.

Perfume Material: Musk

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.

First Day of Autumn Perfume Picks

Today is the first day of fall, the beginning of my favorite perfume season. The air is getting cooler, my vibe is getting cozier, and I’m excited to revisit some old favorites and get more intimate with some new scents. After picking out these perfumes I realize they’re basically all gourmands. Any other gourmand enthusiasts out there? Anyone with favorite fall scents that are not gourmand?

Naomi Goodsir Or du Sérail is a voluptuous cornucopia of ripe red fruits dripping with honey, soaked in rum, and edged in tobacco. In other words, it’s a sexy Thanksgiving perfume. The nose behind it is Bertrand Duchaufour, who also created Olfactive Studio Woody Mood: delicious ginger and cocoa wood, with saffron spice, patchouli and sage. On my skin, a sweet campfire smoke note emerges and crackles underneath the ginger.

Chris Collins Sweet Taboo by nose Nathalie Feisthauer is cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced balsams with a slightly nutty coffee character.

Two of my favorite chocolate perfumes: Fzotic Ummagumma is chewy, leathery chocolate incense smoke. Slumberhouse Ore is smoky woods and bitter cocoa, heavy forest cabin vibes.

Nasomatto Baraonda is the classic image of a cozy (boozy 🥃) autumn evening: old books, antique wooden furniture, honeyed red fruits, and a few generous pours of whiskey, all rendered in such as way as to make them sheer.

And of course, my beloved Serge Lutens Borneo 1834 by Christopher Sheldrake (2005 formulation). Velvety, vampy cocoa patchouli. 

Perfume Note: Wildfire Smoke

When this year’s wildfires began burning a few weeks ago, I reached for Chris Rusak’s Io—dry heat and a California forest becoming incense. It quickly became #tooreal and I had to put it away for a different season. Kitty Guo articulates it in her essay “Where There’s Smoke: Perfume and California Wildfires” when she writes, “IO is sweet and sublime: soft footfalls on a bed of pine needles, a soaring forest cathedral, a night spent under the stars. But it is also seeded with threat and precarity, a sense of teetering just on the verge of disaster.” In Chris’s words, Io is a perfume “about survival…It’s about this idea how in California, we’re constantly surrounded by wildfires and death and burning, but at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to live and get to tomorrow.” 

Kitty wrote her essay earlier this year, before this most recent season of wildfires. For her the scent of wildfire smoke is nostalgic, bringing to mind idyllic childhood summers. Though the smell has undercurrents of danger and devastation, finding a perfume that captures the smoky summer scent of her memories has become her white whale.

Reading Kitty’s exploration prompted me to revisit some of my favorite smoke perfumes (other than Io, of course). Bois d’Ascese by Naomi Goodsir is a deep, meditative fragrance of woodsmoke, tobacco, and peated whiskey. Burning Leaves by CB I Hate Perfume is an accurate rendering of its namesake, sweet and nostalgic. Kilauea by Olympic Orchids is a volcano erupting against the lush backdrop of a tropical paradise. Ummagumma by Fzotic is for when you think you want smoke, but really what you want is to curl up in a blanket and eat something chocolate.

Find more from Kitty Guo at kittyguo.com.

Synesthesia by Bruno Fazzolari

When we talk about what it’s like to encounter smells, I tend to resist much enthusiasm about the idea of synesthesia (the “crossing-over of perception and senses,” experiencing a smell as a sound or a number as a color, and so on). We are so unpracticed at encountering smells and we have such little vocabulary for the experience, it’s only natural that when we grasp for ways to conceptualize it, we reach for parallels from our other senses: scent as music with notes and chords, or scent as texture, or as color. While it’s certainly useful to think about scent in these terms, I find myself wanting to push aside what feels like an analogy with limited usefulness and lean into the baffling ways that scent is none of these things—it is a separate category of experience.

But lately I’ve been spending time with Bruno Fazzolari’s book of Synesthesia paintings and finding it unexpectedly generative. From his introduction: “For someone who ‘sees’ scent, it feels odd to say that odor and color are separate categories of experience when both are vibrational events along a continuum of experience. At some point we call one seeing and the other smelling, just as we stop saying green and start saying blue. My work explores this space between color, visual form, odor and olfactive form, and about the ways these relationships expand the space of painting and the space of perfume.”

What’s most compelling to me about Fazzolari’s work is that he’s using his synesthesia not just as a way to interpret or translate smells, but also as a way to approach manipulating them. To discuss his painting Osmanthus, he describes the scent of osmanthus absolute: “while it’s jammy, it’s also dense, heavy, and lacks a sense of space. A pleasing osmanthus perfume would need to open up the space of the extract in some way. The painting explores color facets of osmanthus absolute and considers some contrasts to open up that space. Alone, the pink in the painting lacks sparkle, and the green rectangle is too vivid. Combined, they transform one another.” Fazzolari isn’t just sharing his synesthetic experience of smells, he’s also applying principles of color theory as a skilled perfumer. 

Inspired, I pulled out my copy of Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, flipped it open, and felt this connection confirmed when I saw gradation studies shown on a photograph of perfume bottles. There are principles of perception that an artist can play with to create a new experience for their viewer. Fazzolari draws upon the experience of his senses as inter-connected, creating space for us to experience it, too.

Purchase Bruno Fazzolari’s Synesthesia – Catalog or shop prints and perfumes.

Perfume Note: Peach

peaches

I crown Olympic Orchids Red Cattleya as Queen Peach. It’s everything you crave from peaches: it’s juicy, velvety, sumptuous and a little bit syrupy. Accented with ribbons of melon, green florals, musk, and wood.

Peach priestess is Frassai Tian Di: a peach pit carved from light wood, tendrils of incense smoke rising. Somewhere I read someone say this is a tea perfume, and they’re not wrong. Calming and subdued yet structured. When I first smelled Tian Di I didn’t quite get it, but then one day after a couple months in quarantine when I felt like a blob, I sprayed some on and it gave me shape and a feeling of smoothness.

perfume sample vialsLvnea Perfume La Serpentine is another smooth scent, peachy osmanthus and leather on a chypre bed of oakmoss.

Motif Olfactif Nectar Boisé is a peach scent for cardamom lovers, sweet spiced stewed fruits with sandalwood.

Sarah Baker Jungle Jezebel is neon banana-peach candy.

Shay & Blue White Peaches is quite delicate, a peach-tinted clean scent. I would like a shower gel with this scent.

I feel similarly about Parfums MDCI Peche Cardinal: a delicate, girly fruity-floral, peachy plummy with gentle washes of coconut and blackcurrant.

Aftelier Palimpsest has layer of peach fuzz over its rich, animalic jasmine and ylang ylang.

Histoires de Parfums 1969 is not peach-forward, but a spiced peach serves to meld its patchouli-chocolate-coffee base to its floral heart.

Finally, vintage Guerlain Mitsouko. I confess that I have a hard time with vintage perfumes. I get that Vintage Perfume Smell front and center, and it crowds out almost everything else in my nose. After a long dry down, if I squint my eyes I can make out the peach, the spices, the oakmoss. Lizzie Ostrom, a.k.a. Odette Toilette, in her book Perfume: A Century of Scents calls Mitsouko “the oblique perfume” that “is known for being difficult, revealing its hand slowly, if ever,” so perhaps I’m not alone.

Scent as a Weapon

Warning! Tear gas leads to addiction to the revolution... Mira Diab
“Warning! Tear gas leads to addiction to the revolution…” by Mira Diab. Features a photograph by Jakob Rubner. Buy a postcard print from Dikkeni, and proceeds will go to NGOs and artists in Lebanon. Also a reminder to donate to Impact Lebanon and/or Islamic Relief USA to support relief efforts in Beirut following the explosion.

Scent can be weaponized. It can be violent. I’ve been learning a lot from talks hosted by The Institute for Art and Olfaction—about the ways colonizers wipe out native smells and impose their own smellscapes, from Hsuan L. Hsu’s Experimental Scent Summit talk “Decolonizing Smell.” About the ways that the unfamiliar smells of an othered community are so often used to dehumanize and justify violence against them or to deny them access, from Nuri McBride’s class “Xenophobia: An Olfactive History of Otherness.” And from Aleesa Cohene, I learned about Skunk: scent made into a powerful weapon. It is touted as “less lethal” and more humane, but it also inflicts unique psychological, social, emotional, and neurological damage upon its targets. And of course, it maintains the cycle of othering—an entire group can be sprayed with the persistent stink of Skunk, marking them, robbing them of dignity, and potentially justifying further violence against them.

Perfume Vibe: Beach Vacation

Perfumes to help you pretend you’re on a beach vacation.


Heeley Sel Marin is the first whiff you catch of the ocean when you arrive. Salt and sand, carried to you on a breeze. Wade into the waves and smell Profumum Roma Acqua di Sale, salty seaweed and ocean brine. For a softer take, try Hilde Soliani Acquiilssssima: seaweed and jasmine green tea. Your skin will smell like Arquiste Sydney Rock Pool, traces of coconut suntan lotion mixing with the salt water, warmed by the sun. Spread out your towel on a sun chair and the air smells like Heeley Coccobello: coconut, unsweetened, with touches of vanilla, subdued beachy florals in the salty air. 🌊 🏝

In the evening, you might put on Aftelier Parfum Privé, lush, soft, and romantic with tropical florals and a setting sun. Or you might reach for Fzotic Unsettled, the creamiest sandalwood over a relaxing pineapple and black tea accord. Wear Nishane Fan Your Flames if you want to smell like piña colada, but make it fashion—a generous pour of rum, with tobacco and coconut. For dessert, Pink MahogHany Pas Encore Nommé: pineapple cream topped with malted sugar. 🍍

Finally, my favorite part of a beach vacation, which I’m evoking through generous sprays of Pierre Guillaume Poudre de Riz: The Nap. Late afternoon, post-beach and post-shower. The lights are off and the shades are drawn, but natural light suffuses dimly into the room. The sun’s warmth still radiates from your skin, but the hotel towels and bedsheets are cool, and clean, and starched white. There is no nap more restful than this one.