Perfume Notes: Black Pepper and Pink Pepper

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.

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, 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.

Anna Zworykina My Vanilla puts black pepper at the top of a complex, spiced vanilla, with woods, resins, green galbanum, and a sweet floral heart.

In Pink MahogHany Gent, black pepper and rosewood provide balance for a soft pineapple note. 

In Oriza L. Legrand Les Tourterelles de Zelmis, black pepper and saffron add depth to a waxy geranium-rose. 

Parfums de Nicolai New York Intense is a powdery, aromatic cologne with citrus and black pepper.

Filigree & Shadow Eperdu is a bright scent with pink pepper and citrus fruits on a dry, woody-sweet vetiver base.

Perfume Note: Fig

Image credit: Trew, C.J, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

My favorite fig perfumes hover in the soft milky-green family, such as Nishane Wulong Cha—oolong tea, stems, wood, and milky lychee and fig.

Go further in the direction of coconut and you’ll find DS and Durga Debaser, a blunt snapped fig branch, unsweet coconut shavings, iris and dry woods.

Maya Njie Tropica 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 Guillaume Bois Naufrage: clean musks and the condensation of salty marine air on the wood of a fig tree.

Profumum Roma Ichnusa is a warm, dry, woody fig. Dambrosia focuses more on the fleshy fruit, along with creamy sandalwood and almond.

Lubin Figaro 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 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.

One of the more interesting uses of a fig note is in Jazmin Sarai Fayoum: ripe figs and dates in a clay pot, warming in the sun, dust and dirt in the air.

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.

Christmas Perfumes

Last December, I used up my decant of Serge Lutens Fille 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.

Slumberhouse Norne smells like jammy fir absolute and the incense-scented forest floor. Luca Turin called it a “feral growl” of a perfume.

Olympic Orchids Seattle Chocolate is dry dark chocolate and darker evergreen woods, with an undercurrent of incense.

Etat Libre d’Orange Noel 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.

Arquiste Nanban 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?

Merry Christmas! I found these cute scratch-and-sniff Christmas cards by La Familia Green at everythingsmells.com.

First Day of Autumn Perfume Picks

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 Goodsir Or du Sérail is 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 Studio Woody 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 Collins Sweet 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. Slumberhouse Ore is smoky woods and bitter cocoa, heavy forest cabin vibes.

Nasomatto Baraonda 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 Lutens Borneo 1834 by Christopher Sheldrake (2005 formulation). Velvety, vampy cocoa patchouli. 

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 Vibe: Beach Vacation

Perfumes to help you pretend you’re on a beach vacation.


Heeley Sel 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 Soliani Acquiilssssima: seaweed and jasmine green tea. Your skin will smell like Arquiste Sydney 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 Heeley Coccobello: coconut, unsweetened, with touches of vanilla, subdued beachy florals in the salty air. 🌊 🏝

In the evening, you might put on Aftelier Parfum Privé, lush, soft, and romantic with tropical florals and a setting sun. Or you might reach for Fzotic Unsettled, the creamiest sandalwood over a relaxing pineapple and black tea accord. Wear Nishane Fan 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 MahogHany Pas 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 Guillaume Poudre 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.

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 Smell of Revolution

Lisa Kirk Revolution perfume

After Erica So’s thought-provoking Experimental Scent Summit talk 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.

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.