This is Eugene Rimmel’s seminal The Book of Perfumes, published in 1868.
My favorite plate is the floral clock. Flowers are placed at the hour at which they are most fragrant, but it’s a mix of AM and PM.
Clary sage in perfumery is ever-present yet often sidelined, playing a supporting role in fougères, chypres, lavender, forest, and floral scents. I recently got my hands on a clary sage absolute, which is rich like mulched hay, as opposed to the brighter, herbaceous essential oil.
It got me thinking that I wasn’t sure I could identify any perfumes that put clary sage recognizably front and center. Of course, when I asked Tracy at Fumerie Parfumerie in Portland, she had two excellent examples on hand: Musc Encensé by Aedes de Venustas Masque Milano’s Terralba by Delphine Thierry. Terralba is a fortifying blend of clary sage with aromatic herbs, wood, and a saline breeze, like you’re standing cliffside at the ocean, breathing deeply and feeling a sense of clarity.
“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.”
—Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
I think about this a lot, and I wonder what your thoughts are. Do we want a more robust language for scent? If we, as a culture, paid more attention to everyday smells and regularly sought out scents to experience—would it lose some of its magic?
Vetiver is a scent I had never heard of before I got into perfume, though it’s extremely common. I remember the first time I recognized it in Dasein‘s Spring—somewhere between woody and grassy, vetiver is both soothing and perpetually buzzing with kinetic energy. The essential oil is distilled from the roots of the tall vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) with backnotes ranging from smoke to peanuts and potatoes to mint or grapefruit. It’s complex enough to stand as a perfume on its own, but it’s also widely used as a supporting note in all kinds of perfumes, lending earthiness and structure, sometimes detectable, sometimes not.
If you’re looking for a no-fuss, pitch-perfect vetiver perfume, you want 33 by Chris Rusak. HEELEY Vetiver Veritas is another solinote vetiver, and it leans hard into the grassy, grapefruit-mint side of the material. Masque Milano Hemingway is a standout vetiver-forward scent composed by Fanny Bal, with cedar, ginger, and patchouli accents.
Hermes Terre d’Hermes by Jean-Claude Ellena is a classic vetiver scent, impeccably balanced with mineral, cedar, and citrus notes.
Nasomatto does wonderful things with vetiver in Absinth, a complex, sweet green fragrance with loamy earth and wormwood. J. Hannah Co. Skive is an exceptional leather scent woven with unmistakable vetiver and frankincense. Jovoy Incident Diplomatique is a captivating duo of vetiver and patchouli, velvety yet dry with a touch of nutmeg and juicy citrus.
Etat Libre d’Orange bridges vetiver and vanilla in the delightful, creamy-salty-grassy-resinous Fat Electrician. Serge Lutens does something similar yet more restrained with the elegant, ambered Vetiver Oriental.
Other vetiver-forward perfumes include Comme Des Garcons Clash: Radish x Vetiver (aquatic/mineral scent meets subtle dirt and grass), Essential Parfums Mon Vetiver (gin & tonic and light cotton with a touch of smooth green), HEELEY Espirit du Tigre (camphorous, herbal, energetic), Oriza L. Legrand Vetiver Royal Bourbon (spicy cardamom barbershop with an herby, grassy, leather texture), Olfactive Studio Ombre Indigo, and Escentric Molecules Escentric 03. Escentric Molecules Molecule 03 can be a helpful point of reference with its single note of synthetic vetiver—or you can just buy vetiveryl acetate from any materials supplier for a few bucks.
Then I started noticing more scents and flavors described as “lychee”—a wine with lychee notes, a lychee and coconut scented shampoo. I no longer felt sure I knew what lychee smelled like. In fact, Nishane doesn’t actually list lychee as a note in Wūlóng Chá. So I got my hands on some actual lychee, along with a lychee-flavored “pudding” (more of a jelly, which works, because lychee flesh is a little bit jelly-like). The scent strikes a balance between sweet, tart, and bitter, with a milky-watery character that could be at home alongside rosewater or fresh coconut.
In terms of aroma molecules, the scent can be loosely reconstructed with raspberry ketone, geraniol, and cassis materials (berryflor and/or labienoxime, which is also used for fig notes). Now that I’m truly acquainted with lychee, I can tell you for certain: Wūlóng Chá is a damn good lychee tea perfume.
I’ve been having fun exploring Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith’s Ancient Egyptian Smell Kit.
Goldsmith reconstructs the smells that ancient sources describe—including the smell of mummification (made up of the many fragrant substances the ancient Egyptians used to mummify their dead, the wood coffins, and the floral garlands placed upon the mummy before the coffin was closed). Two of the scents, Kyphi and Mendesian, were perfumes produced in ancient Egypt. The kit also includes scent reconstructions of ancient Egyptian gardens, festivals, and floral-lined ponds where love poems were set. The temple smell reconstruction is a complex mixture not only of incense and sacred oils used in ancient Egyptian temples, but also the smells of food offerings made to a deity: roast meat, bread, sweet cakes, milk, beer, and wine. Goldsmith includes descriptions of each scent along with excerpts from translated ancient sources mentioning each fragrant substance.
Encountering the scents in this educational, historical context feels simultaneously “transportive” and familiar, taking a subject that can easily feel distant and remote from my present reality, and grounding it in smells I recognize and experience in an intimate, embodied way.
How would you describe the scent of tea? In perfume, there’s a wide range of possibilities within the idea of a “tea” scent—smoky, vegetal, nutty, milky, fruity, floral—and the texture can range from watery and refreshing to dry, even astringent. Some tea perfumes live in the sphere of wood, paper, or leaves, while some are soft florals. Many tea perfumes don’t smell like tea so much as the ambiance we associate with tea: delicate florals, chilly refreshment, chai spices, whispers of fruitiness, cleanliness, leaves and fresh cut grass, a relaxing spa.
What, exactly, is the common denominator? The best tea perfumes I’ve smelled are broadly characterized by a subdued disposition: compelling, yet restrained, calm, and collected.
My favorites so far are the classic Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert by Jean-Claude Ellena for BVLGARI (this was released in 1993 and was, to my understanding, the original tea perfume), Comme des Garçons’s simple and refreshing Series 7: Sweet – Nomad Tea, and Nishane‘s Wūlóng Chá, a crisp lychee oolong. Zoologist’s Elephant is a stimulating, astringent black tea nestled among big green leaves. Masque Milano’s Russian Tea is atmospheric, with hints of sweetness, hints of smoke, and a leather base. Le Labo’s Thé Noir 29 is tea-adjacent: smoky, robust, with vetiver, cedar, bay leaf, and the idea of black tea, while CH I Hate Perfume’s Russian Caravan Tea is as accurate and straightforward a black tea perfume as I’ve smelled.
Do you have a favorite tea perfume?
Sometimes smelling a raw material feels like discovering a Rosetta Stone—it unlocks a perfume that until then I couldn’t quite decipher.
Recently I had this flash of recognition with flouve absolute (see description below), which was entirely new to me, but upon smelling it I suddenly understood what’s going on in Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse. Similarly, when I smelled a gorgeous fir absolute, it felt like I could more deeply understand Slumberhouse’s Norne and its dense, sweet, “jammy” forest character. I don’t know if this material is in the perfume, but when I smelled hydrocarboresine (made from the gummy resin of labdanum) my mind instantly went to Bruno Fazzolari’s Ummagumma, and the chewy quality of its smoky leather made more sense, like I could see the through-line from incense to chocolate.
Have you had this experience with any raw materials and perfumes?
Captivated, I contacted them to learn more about their thought process behind this project. Tiffany graciously shared some of her inspiration and vision with me, so I’m going to draw upon her words here. On a fundamental level, Bright Black Candle creates “an explicit sensory experience that connects positivity and Blackness. And we wanted to use scent because it is such a powerful form of sensation that we thought we could really share stories and memories and aspirations through this medium.” They’re using scent to “foster connection through community dialogue. We want to create safe spaces for people to honestly and humbly and confidently discuss the pain and hope and joy and challenges with race in general, and in particular, with Blackness.” Scent has this power to invoke history, connect us with present realities and inspire change for the future, to foster conversation—all in such an intimate and experiential way.
Keep Tiffany and Dariel on your radar: in 2020, they’ll be rolling out blog content with more about the history and narrative that each city in the Diaspora collection holds, and they have more candle collections in the works!
Alluring, unsettling, assertive galbanum leather. The nose (perfumer) behind it, Isabelle Doyen, calls this scent an “insomniac tuberose… a sleepless flower stripped of its solar finery. I had this image of a flayed, wounded tuberose in my mind, seeping its perfume like sap.” The idea of insomnia is a perfect fit. Nuit de Bakélite has the wakefulness of a green perfume but none of its well-rested freshness. This is also, it turns out, a tuberose, which I find difficult to reconcile. Nez magazine reviewed the perfume in issue 4: “A rooty galbanum with intonations of pea, carrot and green pepper spits out a scent of crisp, aqueous, almost poisonous sap like that exhaled in exotic hothouses. [Doyen] colours this with a buttery iris and verdant violet, tracing the broad but defined contours of a vintage green chypre. The tuberose’s spices are then layered over a smoky tobacco, submerged in hot resins, distressed leather and milky musks. Secreted behind its eccentric opening are the perfectly executed seams of Nuit de Bakélite. Like a brazen dancer dressed in a loud green veil, twirling like the visionary Loie Fuller. After a slow striptease, she reveals her houndstooth suit; fitted jacket and pencil skirt, classic and well-tailored. Suddenly chastened, she blows clouds of smoke in your face, drawn from her cigarette holder… made of bakelite, of course.”