Perfume Note: Fig

Image credit: Trew, C.J, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 Parfumeur Premier Figuer, a prolific fig tree, leaves rustling, pungent with sap, with whispers of almond and sandalwood. Diptyque Philosykos 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 Nishane Wulong Cha—oolong tea, stems, wood, and milky lychee and fig.

Go further in the direction of coconut and you’ll find DS and Durga Debaser, a blunt snapped fig branch, unsweet coconut shavings, iris and dry woods.

Maya Njie Tropica 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 Guillaume Bois Naufrage: clean musks and the condensation of salty marine air on the wood of a fig tree.

Profumum Roma Ichnusa is a warm, dry, woody fig. Dambrosia focuses more on the fleshy fruit, along with creamy sandalwood and almond.

Lubin Figaro 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 Vermeire Ashoka, 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 Sarai Fayoum: ripe figs and dates in a clay pot, warming in the sun, dust and dirt in the air.

Aftelier Fig 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.

Christmas Perfumes

Last December, I used up my decant of Serge Lutens Fille 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.

Slumberhouse Norne smells like jammy fir absolute and the incense-scented forest floor. Luca Turin called it a “feral growl” of a perfume.

Olympic Orchids Seattle Chocolate is dry dark chocolate and darker evergreen woods, with an undercurrent of incense.

Etat Libre d’Orange Noel 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.

Arquiste Nanban 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?

Merry Christmas! I found these cute scratch-and-sniff Christmas cards by La Familia Green at everythingsmells.com.

Scent Memory: Mothballs

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.

It was a joy to share these memories with Frauke Galia for her project Scent Tattoo. Read the full story here.

Smell Words: A New Zine

“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.

Risograph printed by Paper Press Punch.

Sissel Tolaas: Use Your Nose

“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

📖 Book borrowed from my friend Noele

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.