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 SaraiOtis & 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.
And of course, Blackpepper by Comme des Garcons does justice to its namesake: dry and woody, crackling with cedar and agarwood, with just a hint of tonka bean to smooth out the sharp edges.
For pink pepper, XinuCopala 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.
Anna ZworykinaMy Vanilla puts black pepper at the top of a complex, spiced vanilla, with woods, resins, green galbanum, and a sweet floral heart.
In Pink MahogHanyGent, black pepper and rosewood provide balance for a soft pineapple note.
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 ParfumeurPremier Figuer, a prolific fig tree, leaves rustling, pungent with sap, with whispers of almond and sandalwood. DiptyquePhilosykos 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 NishaneWulong Cha—oolong tea, stems, wood, and milky lychee and fig.
Go further in the direction of coconut and you’ll find DS and DurgaDebaser, a blunt snapped fig branch, unsweet coconut shavings, iris and dry woods.
Maya NjieTropica 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 GuillaumeBois Naufrage: clean musks and the condensation of salty marine air on the wood of a fig tree.
LubinFigaro 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 VermeireAshoka, 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 SaraiFayoum: ripe figs and dates in a clay pot, warming in the sun, dust and dirt in the air.
AftelierFig 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 JAmbre 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 OrchidsOlympic Amber is a woody, incense-inflected amber with patchouli.
Many perfumes use amber as a base for a floral heart—AftelierAlchemy 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.
I crown Olympic OrchidsRed 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 FrassaiTian 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.
I feel similarly about Parfums MDCI Peche Cardinal: a delicate, girly fruity-floral, peachy plummy with gentle washes of coconut and blackcurrant.
AftelierPalimpsest has layer of peach fuzz over its rich, animalic jasmine and ylang ylang.
Histoires de Parfums1969 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.
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 MilanoLove 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. 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 poem “For 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.
NasomattoBaraonda—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.