Sweeter than midnight
More secret than the rose
- Michael Hornyansky, "The Queen of Sheba"
The intensity of my memorial and emotional response to scent holds me captive to the whim of random air currents. The scents of diesel and asphalt take me back to Bangalore; coconut milk and burning wood, to Tangasserri; blooming honeysuckle, back home to Nashville; Earl Grey tea, to West Lafayette... Some of the best and worst times of my life come back to me, strong and immediate, on drifts of wind.
So it's unsurprising that I love perfume; it captivates me utterly. After all, unpopular as the notion is nowadays, I am a sensualist, and no sybarite worth her salt would forbear to revel in the exquisite pleasure perfumery can bring. Its intricate components fascinate and delight me, and they always have. (My perfume of choice at age 16 was Dior's “Poison”—thanks, Mom.)
But med school tells you not to wear perfume. So this past year I've attempted to restrain myself whilst my gorgeous perfumes sat waiting, and I pined for them in silence. After a year of this sullen (mostly) scentlessness, it finally occurred to me to discuss perfume with other physicians. The ones with whom I spoke told me to wear perfume and (perfumista/physician tip) take an alcohol pad to my arms and throat before I went into clinic.
Bloody brilliant! Problem solved. My wonderful scents and I were back in business.
So now I'm reveling in the world of perfumery once again. That world is near-labyrinthine in its complexity—I've been learning about scent notes, accords, blending, and so forth for at least a decade, and I'll continue for the rest of my life. Over the course of that learning I've picked up information and developed tastes which have led to the formation of several general rules, which in my consummate generosity I am of course going to share with you.
My tastes in perfume (and other sensate experiences) are underpinned by five desires:
1. I want complexity. Once in a while I'll crave a simple, one-note scent and pull out jasmine or vanilla or sandalwood essential oil. But most of the time, I want to wear evidence of a perfumer's virtuosity—chamber orchestras of notes blended and conducted so masterfully that simply smelling them creates a symphonic burst of memory, emotion, and sensation.
2. I want truth. I like scent notes which are true to origin—identifiably natural. I like to be able to tell what the base notes in my perfumes are. I like scents which hold their base character perfectly—scents with high substantivity. That means that, with few exceptions (aldehydes being one—you'll pry my No5 out of my cold dead hands), I find scents with dominant synthetics disappointing.
3. I want flowers...& a little sweetness. Though the scents I wear include notes from amber to patchouli to cassis to sandalwood to ginger, their middle or base notes are always anchored by one of the big four flowers in perfumery—jasmine, rose, violet, or tuberose—sumptuous, heady scents. I also want a slight touch of sweetness. Dry, astringent, grassy, or overtly minerally or woody perfumes might smell great on the guy I'm with—but not on me.
4. I want endurance. I love the experience of discovering a scent over time—experiencing layer upon layer of note and nuance and expertly-wrought sensation. I love wearing a perfume whose mood and pacing shifts as the day—or night—goes on.
5. I want exotica. Given my looks and body chemistry, I can pull off sultry, smoky, mysterious scents—and lush, luscious, glamorous ones—and light, sweet, pretty ones...well, you get the picture. I always have more than one perfume of each type. But all of my perfumes contain spice or incense notes, and 75% of the time it's the exotic and/or complex scents which suit my mindset and my mood.
Disclaimer: My tastes—and the opinions resulting from them—are my own. People like and enjoy perfumes across a huge price range, and their olfactory tastes run as far or further over the map than their gustatory ones. If you like perfumes I don't (I can guarantee that you do), if your sensualist principles differ from mine (ditto), or if you have the kind of magical skin chemistry that makes $12 drugstore perfume smell like Calice Becker's finest (don't smirk; I've smelled it)—in other words, if you like pure vanilla while all I can stand is dark chocolate—then by all means ignore whatever you don't like here, and use whatever you can.
A brief description of what I mean by certain terms, and then a description of the substance under discussion here, before I tell you my rules of thumb.
I'm going to discuss my rules for finding, keeping, and wearing Good Perfume. As you now know, for me that means scents which are complex, well designed, and made with medium-to-good quality (mostly) natural ingredients. For reference, here's a partial list of makers of perfumes I've owned/worn repeatedly: Annick Goutal, Boucheron, Bulgari, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Gucci, Guerlain, Fendi, Montblanc, Nina Ricci. Their perfumes, and perfumes like them, are what I consider to be Good Perfumes. They go for anywhere from $40-$200, but with dedicated shopping and patience you can get most of them at the lower end.
If I talk about Very Good Perfumes (which I won't, very much), I'll be referencing makers like Montale, Amouage, By Kilian, Parfums MDCI, Creed, and their ilk. Their perfumes are close to the pinnacle of the perfumer's art, and are fairly well exempt from most of the caveats I mention here. They also retail for an average of $250 an ounce, no discounts—I've worn them, but I don't own them.
Here are some websites to check out should you want more information:
OzMoz (www.ozmoz.com), an incredibly comprehensive encyclopaedia of scents which gives origin and top, middle and base notes for thousands of designer perfumes;
Luckyscent (www.luckyscent.com) a boutique-perfume retailer with a huge database of boutique-perfume reviews from dedicated perfumistas—most of which are far more informative than those on any other perfume site.
Now, a description of the substance under discussion.
Perfume as it's discussed here is a bottled mix of several different plant, animal, and mineral essences and absolutes and tinctures, alcohols, aldehydes, colorants and water in precise proportions, designed by a perfumer and sold by a specific brand. There are other scented substances worth knowing about—essential oils and blended body oils, to name two—but for the most part those aren't discussed here.
The blend of substances used in perfume, when it mixes with the specific chemistry of an individual's skin and hair, produces an effect unique to every person who puts it on. No perfume will smell the same on two different people; nor will it ever smell the same on skin as it does on a piece of paper or a sample card. The unique scent of a given perfume on your skin (and around you—the latter is termed the “sillage” of the scent) is a result of this reactivity, and of the inherent aromatic properties of the substances used in perfumery.
In any perfume, the secondary and tertiary properties of those substances are their intensity—how concentrated their scent is—and their substantivity—how long the note remains true to its original scent (their primary property is, of course, their original scent). The perfume ingredients with the highest intensity and substantivity are generally the purest ones, and therefore (unsurprisingly) the ones which cost the most.
Which leads me to rule number one.
1. In perfume, as in jewelry, there's a price basement past which no good perfume can sink.
Perfume-quality oils and absolutes are expensive, and even good replacements cost money. Cheaper perfumes are cheaper because they use lower-quality ingredients, and fewer of them. That has profound effects on the smell left on your skin, especially over time.
Which leads me to rule number two.
2. Buy good perfume.
This rule merits numbers two through five, but in the interests of space I'll confine it to one item. The rule has several corollaries, but the reasoning is simple: Good perfume smells good. Mediocre perfume can wind up smelling very, very bad indeed, especially if it's chosen carelessly. How you smell determines a very great deal of how people respond to you, whether consciously or unconsciously.
This does have a price basement, as I said, but there are two or three ways to circumvent it. One is to buy testers—they're full-sized, original bottles, but they're sold without special caps or fancy boxes or any of the other froufrou which makes them pretty. For decent perfumes, you'll still set down some money, but it'll be one-half to one-third of what you'd pay for the full version. There are also several websites where you can buy samples (Luckyscent is one) for $3-$10 each, and one or two which sell decants—smaller, unlabeled vials which contain the original fragrance.
3. Buy the eau de parfum of your favorite scents.
Below are the various grades/dilutions of aromatics typically offered at a perfume counter:
Perfume extract (parfum extrait)/parfum solid: 15-40% (usually 20%) aromatic compounds
Eau de parfum (Edp)/Parfum de toilette (Pdt): 10-20% (usually 15%) aromatic compounds (Sometimes marked Millésime, French for “vintage/year of”, used most often of wine and monuments.)
Eau de toilette (Edt): 5-15% (usually 10%) aromatic compounds
The more aromatics in the scent you put on your skin, the longer and more intensely that scent will last. When you know you love a certain perfume, wear the eau de parfum; you'll need less to achieve the same intensity, and the scent will last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours longer than the same perfume's eau de toilette. (Parfum itself is of course the best choice for wear, but it's often prohibitively expensive.)
4. Unless/until you're an expert in what smells good on you, try on every scent.
This one seems obvious, but I'm amazed at how many people violate it—though mostly not for themselves. This is perhaps better phrased as “perfume isn't a good gift”. I've violated this rule myself several times, fancying that such a perfumista as myself is exempt (ha!). For the most part, I've been lucky, but I've been burned enough to reinforce the lesson.
The scent of any given perfume on your skin is, not to belabor the point, unique to you. It doesn't matter what it smells like in the bottle, in the air, on a scent card, or on anyone else.
The fact is that the best way to know how a perfume smells on your skin is to put it on your skin—and leave it there. You should never make a decision about a perfume until it's been on your skin at least an hour; the top note—consisting of the most volatile ingredients, the ones that give the initial impression of the perfume—should've had time to develop and give way to the middle and base notes by that time.
If you want to know how a good perfume will smell on you, wear it all day. The base notes, which are usually the “deeper”, more woody, leathery, musky, or incense-like components—though for perfumes containing rose or jasmine absolutes, or vanilla, they can be flowery or spicy as well—take a long time to develop fully, and last the longest. This is the “finish” of the perfume (in perfumery, the "drydown"), the lasting scent impression you and others will carry with you, and it's worth knowing what that is before you commit to it.
One exception to this (there're always exceptions) is that knowing what notes smell best on your skin may enable you to choose certain perfumes sight unseen. For example, ten years ago I realized that every one of my favorite perfumes had a tuberose medium or base note (though that's no longer true). That enabled me to determine that Boucheron's signature fragrance was one I should try—and I adore it. I've lucked out on buying other perfumes without testing, too, but it's always a gamble—don't do it unless you're prepared to toss the bottle you buy.
5. Take care of your perfumes: Keep them away from airflow and out of the light.
The thing which allows perfume to smell so good is that its most aromatic substances are volatile: they release odorants in response to the heat of your skin (and sometimes in response to its acidity). This means that they're inherently unstable: heat, and light of any kind (but especially sunlight, because of its UV content), cause the aromatic components to degrade.
Furthermore, because most perfumes are sold as blended oils and absolutes in a base of alcohol and water of varying concentrations, airflow of any kind around the perfume bottle will cause the alcohol to evaporate—thus altering the concentrations of the blend and throwing off the scent. The combination of these facts means that the time-honored tradition of keeping your perfumes on a toilette tray on the dresser is the best possible way to ensure them a very short life.
Keep your perfumes tightly covered and in the dark—in a drawer, if possible. The satisfaction of being able to use a good scent for an extremely long time—the standard shelf life of a well-cared-for perfume can be anywhere from two to five years, and some can last much longer—will more than make up for the lack of decorative bottles littering your dresser. If you decide to go the tester/sample/decants route, place the bottles/vials in zipper-seal bags before putting them in that drawer.
6. Buy perfume from couture and jewelry houses, not cosmetics houses.
(This is the point at which outraged Estee Lauder and Clinique and Shiseido and Your-Cosmetics-Counter-Here fans will hit the back button, skip down to leave a scathing comment, or come looking for my house.) You've seen the five things I want from perfume. Keep them in mind when I tell you that every fragrance I've tried from a cosmetics house has been of lower quality than those from couture or jewelers' houses.
There are perfumistas who swear by some cosmetics' houses' scents—but I don't know any personally. For my friends, family, and acquaintances as well as for myself, cosmetics-house perfume is a worse value than any other kind of perfume (including drugstore perfume). Though their prices are often the same, the cosmetics-house perfumes' substantivity, their intensity—even their complexity and originality of accord—pale when compared to couture and jewelers' perfumes.
This comes down to ingredients, not design. Many of the top perfume designers design for couture, perfume-only, jewelers', and cosmetics houses. The difference is in the range, cost and quality of the aromatics they're allowed to include in their scents.
This isn't me playing favorites; the higher quality of ingredients is generally true of couture perfumes—even of those I don't like. Balmain, for instance, has never produced a perfume I like; neither have Gaultier, Armani, or Versace, or a half-dozen others I could name. Their perfumes are, however, made with middle-to-high-quality ingredients, as well as being well-designed.
I've recently begun trying perfumes from perfume-only houses again (including the Very Good ones listed above). The results have been generally outstanding—not surprising, really, considering the houses I chose. Still, I haven't tried a wide range yet, and given some I've tried in the past, I judge most houses on a scent-by-scent basis. After all, one of the first fragrances I ever tried and loved, perfume-only giant Guerlain's classic Shalimar, has almost no staying power and a nasty of habit of turning on the skin when the bottle is more than a year old—but their very simple Aqua Allegoria line contains several fragrances I love.
7. Wear the perfume as it's meant to be worn.
This should probably be number three, under "buy good perfume", because how you wear a perfume can turn a decent perfume into a good one—or vice versa.
Perfume should be worn so that you (and others) can smell it. The aromatics are released by body heat; the more skin you cover, the more intense the scent will be and the longer it will last. That means that touching a dab to your wrists and behind your ears is a great way to waste a good perfume.
There is, however, a skill to wearing enough perfume to be able to bask in the scent without assaulting the noses of your coworkers or companions. The balance between the sillage (the amount of “waft” of the scent around you) and the intensity of the perfume you choose has to be carefully managed—I don't recommend Parisian-style wear (which involves atomizing the perfume and then walking into a cloud of it naked, in order to let it settle evenly on your skin).
“Layering” a single scent with perfumed lotion and bath gel can help it last longer, so layer when it's possible. A good perfume with moderate sillage should be applied immediately after you shower, and at least 30 minutes before you go out. Stroke it along the insides of both forearms and at the base of your neck, front and back (cleavage can be included or not, depending on occasion, intensity—and on what you're wearing; perfume oil stains permanently). If you want more scent—and more complexity—spray perfume into your hair.
But be careful with this. All of the times I've screwed up and suffocated people with my perfume have been because I did this without thinking about how long my hair is and how much scent clings to it—and how much more slowly it fades when applied to hair, since the heat level is so much lower. Done carefully, wearing perfume in your hair will make even a wimpy fragrance last quite a while, and for a Very Good perfume it can be a great way of “staging” your scent—drawing out the top notes so that they float over the medium and base notes instead of fading immediately.
Which brings me to the next rule.
8. Be careful about reapplying your perfume.
In fact, I have a firm stance on “touching up” perfume: Don't.
Seriously. Unless it's a Very Good perfume or a soliflore (or other one-note-focused) fragrance, you risk dissonance between its top and base notes. The former are designed to be completely gone by the time the latter begin to emerge; perfectly-harmonized top, middle, and base notes are one of the things which set Very Good perfumes apart from the rest.
Layering a Very Good perfume on hair and skin, or reapplying it midway through an evening, can give you an intriguing and delicious mix of notes—a tunefully fragrant jazz of scent.
Layering or reapplying anything else risks colliding, discordant scents—Stravinsky perfume, if you will. Which I won't.
Again, there are a variety of views on this topic; those who like scents which fade quickly really have no choice but to touch up. But from my point of view, if you're wearing good perfume, you shouldn't need to reapply it during an evening out—even on a heavy date. A good perfume's Edp should last 7 to 10 hours on your skin; a Very Good perfume's Edp will last anywhere from 9 to 14 hours without losing its substance (though of course the intensity fades gradually over time).
If you're in love with a perfume that fades quickly (or are one of the unfortunates who has skin that "drinks" the scent you love), test the scent during staging by wearing it at home one evening, and reapplying two hours in. You'll avoid any nasty surprises while out on that heavy date. (Well...nasty surprises from your perfume.)
9. Dress (up) to match.
This is a wee bit hypocritical on my part, because there've certainly been a few times when I've wound up wearing an exotic, complex scent with jeans, a geeky t-shirt and Doc Martens. (Mostly in law school. Sorry, guys.)
However, I do try to abide by it in general. Believe me when I tell you that it is confounding to the senses of the people you're around to see you in your Chuck Taylors, favorite purple denim dungarees, and Misfits t-shirt while smelling the luxe, classic glamour of Chanel No5 all over you. Do it if you want to screw with people's heads (hey, that can be fun once in a while), but don't do it consistently, or you'll confuse people's senses, and sense of propriety, enough that it makes them subconsciously irritated with you. (I've seen this happen to more than one person, more than once. And yes, I was one of them.)
I say “dress (up)” because this rule doesn't always hold in both directions. It's possible to wear a very simple scent with very dressy clothes. (As with everything concerning fashion, you can do almost anything you want— if you know how to pull it off.) For most of us, however, whether simple or not, whether for day or evening, clothes should match the “feel” of the fragrance you wear. This means that you're going to look gauche wearing something fresh and grassy like Sisley's Eau de Campagne with that red velvet evening gown.
But if gauche is what you want, then hey, go to it. If matching clothing to scent steps all over your artistic license or anarchist ethos or whatever other flavor your amour-propre comes in, then wear whatever placates your sensibilities. Just don't get offended if those around you aren't equally placated.
There are many more things I could say about how I choose and wear perfume. I could talk about how it's made. I could lecture about olfactory groups and manufacturing techniques and maitres perfumiers. I could hit highlights in perfume's 6,000-year history. I could tell you that the world's first recorded chemist was a perfumer—and a woman. (And I just did.) I could, in short, go on at you about perfume for weeks.
But instead, I'll end this little jaunt into the arcane world of perfumery by saying that the delicate and precise blending of different substances to produce a specific olfactory “flavor” is, in the case of the very best perfumes, a work of art equal to anything that hangs in the world's major museums.
That it can be even better, in some cases, because of the intensity of the sensual experience a truly sublime scent can render.
That smell touches some of the oldest and most primitive parts of ourselves. That it connects us more intimately to our bodies and our pasts.
That being able to indulge one's senses in this fashion is a very, very great gift—one of the glorious sensate privileges that comes with living in a human body.
And that this is one of the parts of being human that should not be missed.