I have always been a closet fragrance hound—a habit possibly acquired while rustling about in my mother’s closet, amid the residue of her Le de Givenchy, a scent no longer manufactured (at least not the same formula, according to the blogs). I recently purchased a cheap copy online and since it’s just for sniffing, I don’t mind that it dries down to something that smells more like my actual mother (age 93, dementia, prone to abuse of L’air du temps). I joke, but not really. I used to be mortified when Mom wafted into a restaurant smelling like a 700-pound incense cone (YSL Opium), but now I suspect that she, then menopausal, was using it for protective coloration.
My own hunt for ways to smell like me, just a little less so, has been lifelong. It started with patchouli oil, which I bought at the local headshop but never wore, because it made me smell like the local headshop. From there I graduated to Jean Nate—lemony, cheap and always in stock. In my thirties, I adopted Pheromone, which I wore instead of deodorant when I lived in Los Angeles. I got exactly one compliment on it in nine years. Reviews reveal it to be a “mature woman’s fragrance,” which in retrospect seems emblematic of me and my efforts to be alluring. I thought it had something to do with ancient Egypt—which is probably not the best reason for wearing a fragrance, either.
Back in New York, circa 2001, I switched to Au The Blanc, which I was convinced made me smell modern, like a somewhat salty but clean appliance. And it saw me through peri-menopause, so I guess that was a good-enough metaphor for what I was trying to keep at bay.
Now I wear the hilariously apt Extra Vielle (Extra Old Maid?). Described thusly by a commenter on Basenotes, “a dark, sturdy, smooth bergamot – orange accord comes mounted on a dry, clumpy and woody backdrop”. Hell yes, I say! I layer it over Secret Powder Fresh (no longer “ice blue” sadly, but available in a mystifying array of formulae!) Tom’s of Maine was no longer cutting it.
But there’s good news: We live in the golden age of perfume chemistry. There’s a machine that can capture and analyze the smell of whatever you put in it, which you can then (subject to the availability of raw materials) reproduce. Ex-boyfriend’s T-shirt? Sunshine on pine needles? I await the day when there are self-service kiosks.
I read about this machine in Luca Turin’s The Secret of Scent, an erudite, hilarious, and highly readable book about how fragrances are composed, and how we “read” them with our noses. The only problem with Turin’s book is that it spoils you for all other fragrance writing: “Nombre Noir was half-way between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly background of cigar-box cedar notes.”
Don’t you really, really want to smell that, now? After reading Turin, I saw that my interest in scents wasn’t the product of my mother’s sillage alone, It’s also my response to the compelling mystery of a thing one has only read about but never experienced—each unsmelled smell he describes is as plausibly earth-moving as sex to a virgin. I want to sniff the ancient world: ambergris, myrrh; I want to smell a molecule that no one has ever smelled before—they are made every day, each one ready to release “a different genie,” as Turin tells it. And then there are the lost or nearly lost fragrances he invokes: Coty’s “splendidly abstract but austerely angular” 1917 Chypre; and Fougere Royale, the first synthetic fragrance: named for a scentless fern, it apparently smells like actual human shit, but in a good way.
Digression, but relevant: Once I visited the tasting room at the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society in Edinburgh (The Vaults, Leith.) There the whiskies were listed by number and description only and the atmosphere was reverential. Not so much the tasting notes, however: “boat sheds, peat-fire chimney soot… and salad Niçoise with lemon mayo.” That was cask 3.278. I couldn’t stop laughing and had to leave.
Maybe stay-at-home smell-tourism will be the late-life hobby I have been searching for: a way to expand my horizons without air travel (farewell carbon footprint, TSA-induced psychosis, jet lag) and to experience sensory delicacies and extremes without ostentatious display, egregious calories, or liver damage. There’s not just Saks and Sephora out there, there are all those strange little shops around Broadway and 30th Street, not to mention samples and old stock on EBay. The rest of you can garden, knit, cook, and invent new uses for coconut oil while I dab, spray, and occasionally splash out on something that smells like laundry detergent, ripe fruit, and cat ass—that is, like me, but less so.
Rachel Cline is a novelist and civil servant. She lives in Brooklyn, where she is actually from.