Benzoin is the resin from the styrax tonkinesis tree. Benzoin can be translucent or darker in color, but this one is opaque and looks like dried caramel—and it kind of smells like it, too. Benzoin absolute always reminds me of Coca Cola with its vanilla sweetness, a bit syrupy, but with a fizzy quality that gives the scent some lift and keeps it from being overly heavy. Its scent can be described as “balsamic”—not as in balsamic vinegar, but as in balsams; tree resins. Benzoin absolute smells warm, rich, resinous, with hints of cinnamon and wood. It’s a core component of classic “amber” accords, along with vanilla and labdanum.
Like an oyster makes a pearl to protect its insides from an irritant, a sperm whale makes ambergris to protect its insides from irritating parts of food it can’t digest, such as squid beaks. The whale excretes (ahem, poops) its brick of waxy mucus, leaving it to float in the ocean for years and decades, its scent becoming more and more refined as it “cures” in the salt water and sunlight—this is essential; ambergris fresh from the whale is no good. Eventually a sailor may scoop it up or a lucky passerby out for a beach stroll may find it washed up on the shore. Ambergris looks, basically, like a rock. Originally it was used (generally powdered and/or tinctured) as flavoring or in medicines, including the allegedly plague-dispelling “pomanders” that were filled with aromatic materials and worn around the neck—the word comes from the French “pommes d’ambre”: ambergris apples. Eventually the enchanting substance came to be used in perfume.
In her book Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent, Mandy Aftel writes that “…ambergris remains one of the great mysteries of perfumery; a fixative of great value, it is long-lasting and mellowing. Used in small quantities, it creates an exalting and shimmering effect on the entire perfume. Sweet and dry, with stronger notes of wood, moss, and amber, it has only a slight animal aroma.” Steffen Arctander in his Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin writes of ambergris (listed as “Ambra”): “Its odor is rather subtle, reminiscent of seaweed, wood, moss, with a peculiar sweet, yet very dry undertone of unequaled tenacity.”
While ambergris from a sperm whale can in some ways be compared to pearls from an oyster, ambergris cannot be cultivated the way pearls can—which makes supply irregular and the exact qualities of scent inconsistent from one chunk or tincture to the next. Sperm whale populations are not endangered, but they are vulnerable, which means fewer mucus bricks excreted into oceans. True ambergris has been replaced by a variety of synthetic aroma molecules in most of perfumery—save, perhaps, for a few small-batch artisans dedicated to working with fine natural materials.
Snow doesn’t have a smell, exactly, being made of water—but the combination of cold and humidity is its own experience for our nose. While humidity helps our noses smell, in cold temperatures odor molecules don’t travel far, and fewer of them make their way into our cold-numbed noses. We register the coldness of the air with our trigeminal nerve, which is not the same as olfaction, but we process the experience similarly. The effect as we breathe in through our noses is cooling and refreshing.
The smell of snow, in some ways, is made up of the smell of our snowy environment: pine and fir trees; the environmental smells captured by the relative warmth of the pavement on a cold day; if we’re lucky, the smells of the winter cabin from which we watch the snow fall. The smells of snow may be ones of imaginative association: peppermint, white chocolate, cedarwood, frankincense.
All of this I had the occasion to ponder as I enjoyed @scentsofplates’s “50 Words for Snow” kit, with an herbal tea, chocolate “snow bark,” frankincense aroma candies, fizzy scented bath tablets, and an atmospheric playlist to listen to. The multi-sensory imaginative experience felt like a “snow day” unto itself.
What smells do you associate with snow?
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 Sarai Otis & 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.
For pink pepper, Xinu Copala 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Motif Olfactif Nectar Boisé is a peach scent for cardamom lovers, sweet spiced stewed fruits with sandalwood.
I feel similarly about Parfums MDCI Peche Cardinal: a delicate, girly fruity-floral, peachy plummy with gentle washes of coconut and blackcurrant.
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.
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?