In early 2020, I had the joyful assignment of selecting some curated perfume sample options for a couple who was engaged to get married in the desert near Santa Fe. They wanted to both wear the same perfume on their wedding day, which I love. Like many couples, the pandemic changed their plans, and although they didn’t get married in the desert as planned, the perfume they selected brought the feeling of their Southwest vision back into their wedding day in Portland, Oregon. Profumum RomaArso, which they were able to pick up at their local perfume shop Fumerie, is dry woodsmoke and incense, comforting cedar and pine.
Congratulations to the wonderful couple M & J, and I hope this striking scent will bring back wedding memories for years to come!
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.
Last December, I used up my decant of Serge LutensFille en Aiguilles (“girl in needles,” a resinous, jammy pine), so this year I ordered another. It smells to me like an elegant Christmas forest with accents of Gothic cathedral.
Aftelier’s solid perfume Fir imparts that Christmas tree scent: pure green fir needles.
SlumberhouseNorne smells like jammy fir absolute and the incense-scented forest floor. Luca Turin called it a “feral growl” of a perfume.
Etat Libre d’OrangeNoel au Balcon is a playful gourmand, sweet-spiced-honeyed gingerbread, orange zest in the air, and a subtle smooth plastic note that I’ve heard people describe as “plastic dinnerware.” It smells like a holiday party with your fondest friends, and not over Zoom.
ArquisteNanban is smooth and elegant with its saffron-spiced leather, soft osmanthus, black tea, balsam wood, frankincense and myrrh. Something about it smells like Christmas to me—a very stylish Christmas, like attending a holiday cocktail party wearing suede in taupe and burgundy.
What perfumes and smells do you use to evoke Christmas?
Today is the first day of fall, the beginning of my favorite perfume season. The air is getting cooler, my vibe is getting cozier, and I’m excited to revisit some old favorites and get more intimate with some new scents. After picking out these perfumes I realize they’re basically all gourmands. Any other gourmand enthusiasts out there? Anyone with favorite fall scents that are not gourmand?
Naomi GoodsirOr du Sérailis a voluptuous cornucopia of ripe red fruits dripping with honey, soaked in rum, and edged in tobacco. In other words, it’s a sexy Thanksgiving perfume. The nose behind it is Bertrand Duchaufour, who also created Olfactive StudioWoody Mood: delicious ginger and cocoa wood, with saffron spice, patchouli and sage. On my skin, a sweet campfire smoke note emerges and crackles underneath the ginger.
Chris CollinsSweet Taboo by nose Nathalie Feisthauer is cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced balsams with a slightly nutty coffee character.
Two of my favorite chocolate perfumes: Fzotic Ummagumma is chewy, leathery chocolate incense smoke. SlumberhouseOre is smoky woods and bitter cocoa, heavy forest cabin vibes.
NasomattoBaraonda is the classic image of a cozy (boozy 🥃) autumn evening: old books, antique wooden furniture, honeyed red fruits, and a few generous pours of whiskey, all rendered in such as way as to make them sheer.
And of course, my beloved Serge LutensBorneo 1834 by Christopher Sheldrake (2005 formulation). Velvety, vampy cocoa patchouli.
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.
Perfumes to help you pretend you’re on a beach vacation.
HeeleySel Marin is the first whiff you catch of the ocean when you arrive. Salt and sand, carried to you on a breeze. Wade into the waves and smell Profumum Roma Acqua di Sale, salty seaweed and ocean brine. For a softer take, try Hilde SolianiAcquiilssssima: seaweed and jasmine green tea. Your skin will smell like ArquisteSydney Rock Pool, traces of coconut suntan lotion mixing with the salt water, warmed by the sun. Spread out your towel on a sun chair and the air smells like HeeleyCoccobello: coconut, unsweetened, with touches of vanilla, subdued beachy florals in the salty air. 🌊 🏝
In the evening, you might put on AftelierParfum Privé, lush, soft, and romantic with tropical florals and a setting sun. Or you might reach for FzoticUnsettled, the creamiest sandalwood over a relaxing pineapple and black tea accord. Wear NishaneFan Your Flames if you want to smell like piña colada, but make it fashion—a generous pour of rum, with tobacco and coconut. For dessert, Pink MahogHanyPas Encore Nommé: pineapple cream topped with malted sugar. 🍍
Finally, my favorite part of a beach vacation, which I’m evoking through generous sprays of Pierre GuillaumePoudre de Riz: The Nap. Late afternoon, post-beach and post-shower. The lights are off and the shades are drawn, but natural light suffuses dimly into the room. The sun’s warmth still radiates from your skin, but the hotel towels and bedsheets are cool, and clean, and starched white. There is no nap more restful than this one.
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?
After Erica So’s thought-provoking Experimental Scent Summittalk on experimental scents for protesters in Hong Kong, I revisited this perfume by Lisa Kirk: Revolution. The notes listed are “tear gas, blood, smoke, urine, burned rubber, body odor, and more…” And that’s what I wanted to smell. But I was disappointed—the perfume is perfectly palatable, even pleasant. It paints for me a nostalgic vision of a farm shed in rural East Texas, with scents of old mellowed gasoline, deteriorating rubber tires, but mostly, clean wood smoke. I thought, if this is supposed to be the smell of “revolution,” then it is a revolution that has been made into runway fashion—lifted from its context, made into a creative brief for an ambiguously “rebellious” aesthetic, and given a pretty, anonymous face.
Reading more about the project, I realized that this was entirely the point. From a write-up on madperfumista.com: “Kirk’s art practice centers on the appropriation of radical political signifiers by corporations to sell consumer products, thereby usurping the symbolic power of these signs in the support of capitalism.”
In 2010 Lisa Kirk released a commercial for the fragrance, shot like the mass-market perfume commercials we’ve all seen: moody music plays as a male and female model run in slow motion through a city, meeting for a moment of romantic tension before one of them pulls out a bottle of perfume. In this commercial, the models run through the streets in chic motorcycle boots, pull off their ski masks, and with their gloved hands reveal the perfume—a bottle styled to look like a pipe bomb. Revolution.