I recently took a perfume class. I’ve been into scents since childhood, enchanted by my grandmother’s mysterious bottle of Emeraude, meant to look like a glowing, green gem; coveting my mother’s friendly Sweet Honesty, available in all sorts of whimsical bottles in the Avon catalogs, and – finally – scoring my own Love’s Baby Soft, scent of my puberty. I can’t see the domed top of that cap without seeing a dildo, not since a creepy, older ‘friend’ I had in high school told me it was deliberately designed to resemble a sex toy, to subliminally sell solo pleasure to teenaged girls. Okay? I think he just wanted to say ‘dildo.’
My informal perfume education came from the guy who worked the perfume floor at San Francisco Barney’s in the late 00s; that store was always a ghost town, and he’d be free to jabber at me and my perfume comrade Beth, giving us some basics: the groundbreaking aldehydes that supersized the smell of Chanel No 5; the addictive, slutty patchouli of Angel. He didn’t care that we were basically perfume loiterers, not buying anything, dousing ourselves in Tom Ford and Serge Lutens, spritzing a million little paper wands I’d then toss into my purse so that I always got a whiff of something amazing while I was looking for my keys.
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And I did buy a couple bottles, eventually, during a magical moment of actual regular income and no mouths to feed. I bought an amethyst bottle of Serge Lutens’ Feminite Du Bois – which I think translates, loosely, to Lady Forest. I liked the plum color of the liquid and the smell of it fascinated me, it really smelled like something I hadn’t smelled before, sort of plummy and spicy. I learned that I like to wear a lot of different perfumes, rather than having a ‘signature scent.’ Scent is so non-verbal I can’t really get to the heart of what it’s about, so wearing it is like wearing a little mystery, something to puzzle with throughout the day. Unless it’s repellent to me (and only a couple perfumes have come my way that I really dislike, Like This by Etat Libre d’Orange, and Bleecker Street by Bond No 9) I enjoy checking in with the smell where it sits on me throughout the day, taking a whiff and having a think about it.
Writing about perfume is notoriously rough, and almost impossible to do without sounding a bit pretentious, so you really have to not give s fuck and let it rip. And, of course, writing that does not give a fuck is the best writing, and this is why I love reading perfume review sites. Jumping onto Fragrantica.com to get a better idea of what, exactly, my Feminite du Bois smells like, I learn ‘The plum adds a tangy touch, and I get a little whiff of saliva which is strange.’ I hadn’t ever thought of saliva having a uniform scent! See what I mean? Here’s another: ‘Just so maternal/secure and comforting without being mature or vintage.’ Maternal/secure? Is Feminite du Bois the smell of secure attachment? How about ‘a bit of cumin and a bit of date syrup slowly turning into a spicy plum marmalade.’ Yes, I want to roll around in that.
A book that really fueled my interest in perfume and worked it into a low-key aspect of my identity (my husband made me a perfume bottle cake for my 50th birthday!) is Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris in New York. Burr was the perfume critic for the New York Times (Yes, that is a thing! Isn’t the world exciting?) and in the book he documents his time bumming around Egypt with esteemed ‘nose’ (that’s the embarrassing name for a perfume maker; ‘juice’ is the cringey name for the perfume itself) Jean Claude Ellena, the head perfumer for Hermes, as he labors to create their new scent, Un Jardin sur le Nil, meant to evoke the fantasy of a garden on the Nile (‘One family member thinks it smells like ‘a sporty soccer mom,’ shares a fantasy-wrecking Fragrantica review). Burr splits his time between this highbrow project, and slumming it with Sarah Jessica Parker as she strives to create Lovely for Coty, the multinational fragrance corporation behind a billion familiar scents. It was cool to see how SJP, like all real artistes, struggled with the demands of the marketplace and her own eccentric tastes – she was partial to more avant-garde, indie scents, as well as so obsessed with some trashy musk of her youth she ordered cases of it when it was discontinued. This is all in the book! It stoked my love of perfume and my obsession with the whole obscure, highfalutin world of it. Years later I got to hear Burr speak at a scent event at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. He was caustic and brilliant, like a New York Times perfume critic should be. When someone asked him about creating perfumes with solely natural ingredients he asked her if she thought painters should only paint with berries. Perfume is art, he said, and he didn’t say, You fucking hippie, but the unspoken sillage of it hung in the air around him.
I learned that Jean Claude Ellena also had his own perfume company. Called The Different Company, the scents all come in square chunks of glass, with caps like silver Devo hats. During an era of financial plushness I bought Rose Poivree, which Ellena himself created. I’ve always loved rose scents, and I even really, really love roses, so long as they are not the horrid clone roses that have the scent bred out of them in giant factory farms - the sort of rose that has come to be synonymous with basic, with The Bachelor. For a while I lived in a house that had all these blowsy, tea-stained looking roses cross-pollinating with each other into swirls of peach and yellow and crimson and white, and they would get really fat and then fall apart, smelling great the whole way. Those are the sort of roses I love, the kind you can’t buy, the kind you have to steal from someone’s yard.
Anyway. Rose Poivree. Chandler Burr mentions it during a fantastic piece about Civet he wrote for The New York Times. Civet is an aromatic originally harvested from the ass of a Civet cat – legit, it is the kitty’s anal gland. We don’t need to be hurting animals so that we can smell like fabulous shit, so Civet is now made synthetically. It’s a lot of smell, used sparingly in perfume but oh! the dirty difference it makes. Jean-Claude Ellena put significant hit of civet in Rose Poivree. Says Burr, ‘Pungent with decay, Rose Poivree is unsettling and gorgeous, the perfume that Satan’s wife would wear to an opening at MoMA.’
I don’t always want to smell like Satan’s wife, but I usually do. So, I was very, very excited to find a nasty little bottle of Civette in the box of perfume materials that came with my class. The class was taught by Saskia Wilson-Brown, the founder and Executive Director of The Institute of Art and Olfaction, a non-profit art space and perfume lab nestled amidst the neon of Chung King Road in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. They aim to ‘facilitate strange and beautiful new projects.’ You can take perfume classes directly through IAO – and you should! – though I took mine through Atlas Obscura, a three-week class called Making Scents: Experimental Perfumery with Saskia Wilson-Brown. SWB – if I may abbreviate my instructor’s name, SJP-style – is a very cool perfume nerd for the people. She’s getting a PhD in perfume’s historical relationship to power and religion, and is all about making perfume creation accessible and de-mystifying the industry. The class met on Monday nights for three weeks, a mixture of aspiring perfume nerds like myself and others who have made scents, studied at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France (yes – the France!), or with infamous natural perfumer Mandy Aftel (who has her own juice joint, The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, in Berkeley). Together, we listened to SWB get into the history of perfume, way back in Mesopotamia (the first perfume chemist in historical record was a woman named Tapputi from present-day Iraq, 1200 BC); how in Europe it was associated with leatherworkers who needed to mask the putrid stink of their hides. We learned about how none of the big fashion brands own the formulas to any of their perfumes, but basically commission the fragrances from those giant corporations who keep the ingredients secret (though you can figure it out, as anyone who has ever doused themselves in a Designer Imposter can attest.)
My favorite part of the class was actually messing with the aromatics, the box of curated scents we were to work with. There was Ambroxan, a synthetic ambergris that smells incredible. Indolene, a syrupy, orange oil that stunk of rotting flowers, Jasmine especially; Hexenol, which smells very green but, like, chemically so. It’s not unpleasant, and it’s very handy for that cut-grass smell. Classic oils like Bergamot and Lavender; boozy, wine-y Labdanum. Civette, stinking like every bodily odor one uses perfume to mask. It’s not cologne on funk - it’s just funk! And, my fave, Norlimbanol – an amped-up synthetic that smells like if you found the most ‘roided out tree in the forest and gave it a line of cocaine. Chandler Burr’s take on Norlimbanol: ‘a multi-sensory Disney-ride.’ This is what I want to smell like. In addition to Satan’s wife.
The Norlimbanol arrived all crystalized in its little bottle and I had to warm it up, as SWB suggested, by microwaving a cup of dry rice and then stuffing the bottle into the grains. I’m realizing there is some sort of correlation between scent and scent making and drugs, and maybe it’s just that my addict, obsessive brain loves all of this. I’ll study and report back later.
In class we made a few scents, including a floral accord and a base accord. SWB handed out a sheet with some additional, short formulas; one ‘Orange Blossom-ish,’ has become a mix I keep around to add to my own formulas. Readers, I have a hobby! I love making perfume! My first scent remains my favorite: called OK Van, it is inspired by the fatal breakdown of Sister Spit’s van, at midnight on a Friday night on the Mississippi – Alabama border in August, 1997. I used Indolene for the sweet-rot smell of a lush, deep southern summer; cedar wood and vetiver and Hexenol for more humid green smells, and some of the Orange Blossom-ish for some flowers. Black Pepper, cause we were a spicy lot, and Ethylene Brassylate – a synthetic musk, for the smell of warm skin. Labdanum for our collective alcoholism, my beloved Norlimbanol for its highway, gasoline vibes . And finally, a drop of Civette, partly because no perfume is complete without it (sea salt on your chocolate cookie, said SWB), and partly because we were slutty and smelled like ass. One recent Sister Spit performer I sent it to texted me it smells ‘expensive,’ which is wild, and triumphant. I think you want your perfume to smell like wealth, like you used the very best ingredients and had a high-paid genius toil over it. It’s funny that a smell created in homage to a bunch of broke, dirty queers smells so rich and fancy. And I love that you can make a scent out of a story.
I’ve made a few other scents – Sweet Mama - a bergamot perfume for my mom on the birthday - and for my sister’s bday I made two – Valley, and Mountain, twin riffs on lavender. For myself I made Hospital Flowers, playing around with new bottle of Frankincense. Frankincense smells intensely like Pine Sol up close, and made me remember SWB talking about early perfume’s association with cleanliness and medicine. I made a formula called Cookie on the Beach, inspired by a black and white photo of writer/actress/icon Cookie Mueller in Provincetown, her young son sitting on the sandy ground beside her. I think it’s a good formula, but when I made a little bottle I fucked up and dumped a bunch of Norlimbanol into it, and that’s all you can smell. I have to make it again, though I don’t mind wearing a nearly straight-Norlimbanol scent. Another happy accident occurred when I was meaning to refill my Vetiver, but grabbed Vanillan instead. In class we talked about rescuing Vanilla from the sort of tired, Victoria’s Secret, girl’s bedroom realm its fallen into. Dousing it with a lot of swampy Vetiver is pretty great, like an underwear model running off with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Well, this has really gone on for a minute, and I never got around to elaborating on my three formative perfumes, or how I rarely pay more than five dollars for a scent, or the excellent antique perfumery book I found. I’ll save those for another time. Smell ya later
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Was excited to see Chandler Burr mentioned. His book The Emperor of Scent is the one that got me reading about perfume. Lica Turin the star of that book wrote two of his own which are super. He makes it a quest to show that the shape theory, lock and key business can’t be right and demonstrates it by creating two scents with the same shape that smell different. He brings them to an international conference of perfume scientists who won’t go near them..Kriptonite! The shocking thing is that they claimed that smell is subjective...huh? A science with no metric? And yes ...bring on the purple prose.
I really like this part: "Writing about perfume is notoriously rough, and almost impossible to do without sounding a bit pretentious, so you really have to not give s fuck and let it rip. And, of course, writing that does not give a fuck is the best writing." ❤️❤️❤️