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.

Banana Scent Color Palettes

Three banana scent color schemes.

Yesterday I tried a sample of Hilde Soliani Donna Sentenza and was carried away on a banana pudding dreamboat, vanilla wafers swimming beside me like dolphins. So I pulled out a couple other banana perfume samples, along with my color-aid card deck from long ago art school. L’Artisan Parfumeur Bana Banana is a milky-creamy green banana, a light-hearted soirée full of sophisticated party dresses. Sarah Baker Jungle Jezebel screeches in on neon heels of peach lactones, tutti-frutti cocktail in hand.

Perfume Material: Clary Sage

clary sageClary 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.

Perfume Material: Vetiver

vetiver

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.

vetiver perfumes

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 ElectricianSerge 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.

Perfume Note: Lychee

IMG_6022

After I raided my sample collection for tea scents, I found myself returning to Nishane‘s Wūlóng Chá and its delicious lychee oolong.

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.