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.

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.

Perfume Note: Rose

rose

Rose. In all honesty, I prefer to eat or drink my roses rather than wear them as perfume. These are two of my favorite roses: rose black tea and ferni, an Iranian or Afghan dessert made with rice flour, milk and, often, rosewater and cardamom.

I don’t generally wear rose-forward perfumes—or many floral perfumes at all—because I don’t feel like myself in them. But I will say that Masque Milano Love Kills captured my affection recently with its lychee and petals opening that reminds me of rosewater desserts. (Love Kills was also nominated this year for an Art and Olfaction Award—congratulations, Masque Milano and perfumer Caroline Dumur!).

If you had to pick your favorite rose smell—whether it’s a perfume, something to eat or drink, or your own rose garden—what would it be?

The Scent of Cotton

Bright Black Candle cotton

The scent of cotton. It is, arguably, a “fantasy note” in perfumery terms, as cotton is not distilled or made into an aromatic material, nor does it have much of a scent at all. But when I stick my nose into these fluffs of raw cotton, there is a texture that comes through in the way of smell: soft, swaddling comfort, muffled and peacefully quiet, enveloping like a clean cocoon. “Fantasy notes” use smell in non-literal ways to evoke ambiance, moods, associations, and ideas—which is why it’s such a powerful choice that Bright Black Candles and Cocoasavvy included the textural scent of cotton in these two beautiful candles. The history of cotton—and the wealth and economic power that the US gained through it—is inextricable from the history of slavery, sharecropping, injustice, and the dehumanization of Black lives.

“So much of Bright Black is about seizing control of our narratives and reclaiming our history as a means of shaping the present and the future,” write Tiffany and Dariel of @brightblackcandle in a post about the Durham candle from their Diaspora collection. “This is why we blended cotton with our other fragrance notes in our Durham scent. We were inspired by @blackcotton.us and their movement to position cotton positively (which is a very different framing than we grew up with in the North). From a scent perspective, the cotton softens the whiskey and tobacco notes, rounding it out and providing balance to what would have otherwise been quite a harsh aroma.” The smell is rich, sultry, enveloping, and deep.

For Alita Carter’s @cocoasavvy brand, Bright Black created a scent using notes of cotton, cocoa, and sugar cane—all three major cash crops produced in the Americas, all three produced largely by Black and African people, some free, many not. In Tiffany and Dariel’s words, this candle is in many ways “a tribute to the Americas and the contributions so many Black people provided to growth in these regions….It’s a tender scent, a consoling scent, an almost mitigating scent—sending reassuring messages that tomorrow will be ok, even if today is tough. That hopefulness flows all through this candle, and has flowed throughout our history in North, South, and Central America (and throughout the entire Diaspora really).” Alita paired the scent with Margaret Walker’s poemFor My People.” “…For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way / from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding, / trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, / all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations; // Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born….”

The Cocoasavvy candle can be purchased at cocoasavvy.com, and the Durham candle can be purchased at brightblackcandles.com. The raw cotton bouquet pictured above is from blackcotton.us, a family farm and community-focused company in North Carolina. Give them a follow and take a look at what they’re doing to strengthen their community through agriculture.

Perfume Note: Honey

After the honey tasting, I pulled out some honey perfumes to smell.

perfumes with honey notes

Languid and thick, Hiram Green Slowdive has that Big Honey Energy™.

Naomi Goodsir Or du Sérail is a boozy, honey-drenched cornucopia of red fruits edged in tobacco and rum, sultry and autumnal, like a sexy Thanksgiving.

J Hannah Co. Hazel is a bright, ripe, juicy orange, herbaceously honeyed and darling.

Hermes Ambre Narguile is cinnamon raisin toast dipped in honey with tendrils of tobacco, reminiscent of hookah.

Aftelier Honey Blossom is a springtime meadow blooming with honeysuckle, mimosa, linden and orange blossom, a powdering of pollen floating golden in the air, lulling me into a nap in the sunlight.

Slumberhouse Sova is dark and dense, simultaneously herbaceous and animalic, with hops and hay fermenting in waxy honey.

Anna Zworykina Honey and Tar smells the way it’s named: a sticky vat of honey and tar, sweet and deceptively delicious.

Serge Lutens Miel de Bois is a dry wood infused with light honey, soft and beige.

Parfumerie Generale Intrigant Patchouli is a honeyed patchouli, ginger-spiced and smooth with sandalwood.

Xerjoff 1861 Zefiro is luxuriously cool and sweet, with cardamom, cinnamon, carnation, and fruit notes on a pillow of honey-softened resins.

L’Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two is crystallized ginger with anise and cinnamon drizzled with honey.

Nasomatto Baraonda—I love the way Lucky Scent describes this one: “Baraonda takes the heavy oil paints of the boozy-gourmand genre and uses them to make a watercolor.” A tumbler of whiskey, the smell of old books and antique wooden furniture, honeyed red fruits and resins, all composed in such a way as to make them sheer.

Warm Facets of Lavender

lavender embroidery northwise
Lavender embroidery by Jessa Spencer / Northwise.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a real sucker for lavender. Lately I’ve been reaching for DSH Perfumes Au Crépuscule de Lavande, which was recommended to me as a “candied lavender” perfume. When I first smelled it, I was simultaneously smitten and conflicted. Smitten because it’s such an easy-to-love scent. It makes me think of Cinnabon: coated in caramelized sugar and so delightful that it feels like a guilty pleasure. Conflicted for precisely the same reason: it was so easy to love that it made me suspicious. And besides, it doesn’t smell like what I expect from a lavender.

lavender perfume aftelier face elixir dsh

Even though I already knew that a good lavender could be soft, rich, and pillowy (broadly speaking: the difference between lavender absolute and lavender essential oil, the latter of which is more thin and herbal medicinal-smelling). I’ve smelled lavender complemented by vanilla-tinged tonka or spiced sandalwood, but never quite like this.

Then I put on some Aftelier Lavender Face Elixir and finally I was able to reconcile this particular quality of lavender. It feels to me like a difference in kinetic energy: lavender typically has a quality of restful stillness, but in Au Crépuscule de Lavande and Aftelier’s Lavender Face Elixir, I feel a gentle warmth as if generated by the friction of hands rubbing together, a kind of buzzing, or purring. In Au Crépuscule, this cinnamon-esque warmth is enhanced with sweet, golden resinous notes and tonka bean.

Thank you, Dawn and Mandy for showing me a new side of lavender. 

Perfume Note: Chocolate

Chocolate notes in perfume: cozy, delicious, and delightful.

When I want straight-up chocolate cake batter, I go for 4160 Tuesdays Over the Chocolate Shop, or the lighter Profumum Sorriso with accents of orange.

My most beloved perfume, Serge Lutens Borneo 1834 (I’ll only vouch for the original formulation) is a velvety, vampy cocoa patchouli. Sammarco Bond-T has a similar character but goes in a more dense, smoky leather direction.

Fzotic Ummagumma is chewy chocolate incense smoke, and his Corpse Reviver is booze-soaked, fruity, chocolate-covered civet.

Slumberhouse Ore is cocoa in a deep dark forest cabin, autumnal and moody.

DSH Perfumes Piment et Chocolat is unsweetened dark drinking cocoa with chili powder. Arquiste Anima Dulcis also features cocoa and chili, but is sueded, lighter, with vanilla folded in. Orto Parisi Boccanera is dark, nutty wood dusted with cocoa and chili.

Lubin Upper Ten for Her is a bright-eyed, fruity raspberry-rose going out for the evening, a cocoa powder compact in her purse.

Meshaz Spiced Cocoa puts cardamom front and center, but dries down to a soft cocoa powder.

And, it’s not a perfume but Bright Black Candle’s candle for Cocoasavvy resonates with cocoa and cotton.

Do you have a favorite chocolate scent?

Categorizing Scents

Scent resists organization. Even so, there are quite a few tools for categorizing perfume materials. I like to use them as jumping-off points when I’m brainstorming, rather than puzzles where every scent may lock perfectly into place.

My favorite is Mandy Aftel’s natural perfume wheel. It looks like a color wheel, visually characterizing and grouping smells. Unlike a color wheel, however, a scent’s position on the wheel doesn’t necessarily correspond to special relationships the way a color wheel indicates complementary colors, etc.

I’ve also been poking around on Scent Tree, an interactive website that includes synthetic molecules and groups scents into “branches” such as fruity, undergrowth, leather burnt, and buttery.

Do you use a tool to reference or categorize scents? What have you found helpful?

Perfume Note: Lemon

lee price lemon bath paintings

When I was 22 I moved to gray drizzly Seattle—my first time living on my own—and I spent a lot of time looking at these paintings by Lee Price and drinking tea with entire lemons emptied into the mug. Lemons are bright, they cut through. Today was another gray drizzly day in Seattle and I spent it smelling lemon perfumes.

lemon with perfume samples

Citrus notes are everywhere in perfumery, but a distinctive lemon note can be hard to pull off because we associate it so strongly with cleaning products. The surprise winner of the day for me was Dirty Lemon by Heretic Parfum, which I had never smelled before. It’s rich and warm like lemon-oil-soaked wood baked in the sun and seasoned with pepper.

If you’re looking for a fortifying lemon scent, try Fzotic Five: dry lemon atop sweet wood, with mists of ozonic salty air.

HEELEY Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clements is juicy and bold and balanced with a subtly bitter note and vetiver; his Note de Yuzu is a salted marine lemon.

D.S. & Durga Italian Citrus is a balmy balsam lemon, soft and subdued.

Departing from lemon-centric perfumes, Zoologist Chameleon opens with a distinct lemon note but is also a delightful pastel tutti frutti tropical haze.

Xerjoff 1861 Naxos wraps me in a plush luxury hotel bathrobe with lemon, lavender, tonka, and tobacco.

Masque Milano Terralba is lemon and clary sage and vetiver growing cliffside by the sea.

The actual lemon I had in my kitchen, when I grated the peel a bit, smelled like lemon drop candy. This lemon bonanza of a day was topped off with J.W. Dotson’s Lucky Lemon online class, a wonderful survey of the expansive cultural history of lemons, hosted by The Institute for Art and Olfaction.