One of the reasons I have enjoyed writing these pieces is because it allows me to access my earliest connections to scent. I think I was drawn to what my nose detected in the world before I ever wore a perfume. If there is a through line from these it is my childhood experience informs my adult perception of a specific ingredient. I always write about how I think of vanilla as a comforting odor. It can give me an inner warmth which is particularly appealing in these winter months. I was thinking back to whether there was something which set this association in my head. A local baker gave my brain the nudge it needed to allow me to remember.
Out here in farm country we have a lot of small-batch bakers. It is one of the things I have grown to appreciate about living here. We made an order of treats from our favorite. Inside were these white glazed cookies. I asked her what they were, she called them “super vanilla drops”. Right there my brain got a cue. As I brought one to my mouth that took me the rest of the way.
When I was seven my paternal Grandmother came to live with us. I loved having Gaga in the house. Through her I learned a love of reading as I would read to her before she would go to sleep. We also baked together.
We were blessed by a neighborhood Cuban-American market which had an extensive spice section. Whenever it was baking time we would walk down. Gaga and Sr. Lopez the store owner would consult over what he had in stock. There was a day when he held up a glass tube of gnarly brown strands. I thought they looked like dried up baby snakes. My grandmother broke into a smile and haggled a price for a few of them. As we walked home, I asked her what they were. She told me they were vanilla pods and it was unusual to get them. There was a recipe she had been wanting to use them in.
As we got set up in the kitchen, she took a sharp knife to the pods scraping out the insides with the point. She then diluted it down and it was then the room filled with the smell of vanilla. She strained out the seeds and we used the extract in the making of vanilla drop cookies. The seeds would be incorporated into the glaze we dipped them in.
I don’t remember ever making them again, but the smell of the fresh vanilla was enveloping. It was a scented embrace of my grandmother. I was safe and warm with Gaga which is what vanilla takes me back to.
Anyone who knows me understands the time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day is my favorite time of the year. The food, the friends, the music; everything. A few years ago I began giving this time of year a name in my head, “the season of scent”. Of all the things I mentioned above it also has a distinct evolving profile of pleasant smells throughout. I don’t think I would love it as much if it didn’t smell so damn good.
It starts on Thanksgiving morning with stuffing preparation and pie baking. The first thing that goes in the oven are the pies. Usually apple and pecan. While the doughy spicy pie baking accord wafts from the oven I am chopping herbs. The Scarborough Fair grouping of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The cornbread of a couple days ago awaits crumbling itself carrying a hint of the buttermilk used to make it.
After the turkey is stuffed and prepared it is placed in the oven. I drink my first cup of coffee. The bitter bite a contrast to all the sweetness in the air. Now it is time to prepare the au gratin potatoes. I know most people are not fond of peeling potatoes. There is something about the scent of freshly peeled potatoes I find soothing. This surrounds me as I slice the peeled potatoes in the mandolin slicer. After layering the casserole dish I grate the aged cheddar cheese to use for the sauce. Warm cheese has an unctuous quality that someone needs to make a perfume of. I pour the sauce over the potatoes and leave them to go in the oven later.
Over the next few hours the scents of cooking foods fill up the house. It is part of the joy of the Holiday season because I think it provides a comforting sense of place. I sit drinking another cup of coffee breathing in the mingled aromas.
As everything eventually makes it to the kitchen counter ready to be served it forms the coziest feeling of the year. All because of its scent.
To those in the US celebrating Thanksgiving today I wish you a home full of your scents of the season.
Ever since I started writing these pieces, I have been more attuned to the scents of the world around me. A couple nights ago as the poodles participated in the twilight bark, I observed a haze in the air. Once my nose caught up to my eyes, I knew someone was burning leaves nearby.
Burning leaves is a characteristic smell of autumn. Because nature provides the fuel. After you spend a few hours raking them up. The act of placing them in a fire pit to burn has a primal feel to it. When my neighbor does his burn, I usually end up chatting with him while the flames rise. Last year I realized this is one of the last shared moments of the year. The temperatures will get colder and we will most likely not spend time talking until spring returns.
What I enjoy about the smell of burning leaves is it doesn’t have the weight of a bonfire of wood. Woodsmoke bites. The scent of burning leaves has an inherent sweeter component. The smoke also seems less oppressive. There is something magical about watching the leaves rise on the thermals trailing sparks as they immolate. I usually get a reminder of the smell for a few days after as my sweatshirt holds the scent.
There is only one great perfume which gets the difference between woodsmoke and burning leaves. That is CB I Hate Perfume Burning Leaves. Perfumer Christopher Brosius is at his best in creating a perfume which captures the difference.
I expect I’ll be spending an evening with my neighbor in a few days. Looking through the flames to the Holidays and the New Year.
For every Baby Boomer who grew up near a beach there is one scent which will immediately conjure childhood summers: Coppertone. Coppertone was the leading suntan lotion/sunscreen throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. As far as I can tell it remains #1 in 2020. Which makes me wonder if it will be as indelible to the current generation.
My first memories of going to the beach was as a five-year old. We made the short drive out to Cape Florida State Park. I was ready to go. I wanted to run into the crashing surf. Before that could happen, my mother took out the brown plastic bottle of Coppertone and applied it all over my exposed skin. Putting an extra layer on nose and cheekbones. I share the experience with millions who grew up in this time.
I have read that Coppertone spent a lot of time refining the scent of their product. To find something which would mask the chemical smell of what performed the protective reason for wearing it. What they settled on was an orange blossom focused accord. The interesting part is the chemical part blends with that to form something still pleasant while being completely unique. The smell of Coppertone was part of my wardrobe for most of my life in S. Florida. In a lot of ways it felt like a more solid version of the Florida Water which scented our home. I should probably consider making Coppertone the answer to the question of what my first fragrance was.
It is such a unique scent, perfume has not allowed it to pass by. There are two that I own which capture it dead to rights. One is Bobbi Brown Beach where perfumer Claude Dir also mixed in a healthy dose of Calone to put some sand and surf into the bottle.
CB I Hate Perfume Day at the Beach 1966 is the closest to capturing that childhood memory I have. Perfumer Christopher Brosius’ Coppertone accord is so good it feels photorealistic. He chooses to create his beach accord without relying on Calone which makes it closer to what I remember.
There are few scents which can immediately call to mind a specific product. Coppertone is hard wired into my memory of the beach.
Ever since I began paying more attention to everything about perfume, I also started noticing the less pleasant smells around me. There is a perverse part of my nature that there are smells I like which many would classify as unpleasant. I think it is different for each of us. I was thinking about this while I was also figuring out what I wanted to write about for Fourth of July. It was as obvious as it could be.
Every few summers while I was growing up, we made the obligatory Miami to New York road trip to see my grandmother. It was a three-day affair to get up there. On the return trip there was always an obligatory stop at a giant roadside attraction/hotel called “South of the Border” in Dillon, SC. If you’re an east coast child who took road trips in the 1960’s and 70’s you saw the billboards full of silly puns along with how many miles it was until you reached it. We stopped because it was where we could legally buy fireworks.
When we stepped into the store the smell of gunpowder in its unburnt form perfumed the air. It had a slightly metallic odor over the sulfur it was made up of. We would buy a big shopping cart full which I could dip into with permission. While that was its own interesting scent the one, I like comes at the other end of the process.
Whenever I would light off a string of firecrackers, I would step into the smoke cloud left behind. Here the sulfur is much more pronounced. Plus I would cackle like a demon in a cloud of brimstone. As much as the flashbang was the purpose for most the smoke was almost as good to me. Walking through Chinatown during Chinese New Year was my adult version.
I remember attending a Fourth of July fireworks show when the wind made a sudden shift. It brought the clouds of smoke from the big fireworks barge billowing over the viewing area. I was having my cake and eating it too. Watching the giant spheres of color on a cloud of gunpowder.
I don’t know if there is a deeper meaning to this other than many, I talk with have an odd scent they enjoy that make others turn away. It is a human thing to be attracted to the unusual. That includes scent.
To all my American readers I wish you a Happy Fourth of July. may you find a bit of scented happiness on the day.
I really enjoyed my ten days of the Pierre Benard Challenge last month. One thing I realized is I wanted to keep doing it. To that end I am going to write about perfumes which connect to an emotional time in my life. I am starting with the summer of 1983 Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There is one perfume I associate with that time.
In 1983 I was heading into my last year of graduate school at the University of Georgia. By the time it came time for me to head back to S. Florida for a couple weeks I was burned out. The research was going poorly. I was taking my frustration out on everyone around me. As I pointed the Camaro south from Athens, Georgia I needed a mental break. Being back in S. Florida would always be that tonic.
The cassette player was loaded with sing out loud anthems as I made the day-long drive. One fun thing about being home is I never really got to spend much time before a friend contacted me. My mother thought it was funny that I thought I could have a quiet day to myself. Especially when the phone would start ringing the morning after I returned.
The first call was my friend Adam. He asked me if I wanted to go dancing that night. I loved going dancing with Adam because our destination was the largest gay bar in the area The Copa. I always found the act of dancing was part exercise but part de-stressing. I could just go dance my heart out. Which is what I did. The other reason I enjoyed it was the music. The DJs at The Copa were always weeks to months ahead of the radio. By 1983 The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” had been released the year before. At any of the straight clubs “Flashdance” was the song of that summer. Not at The Copa, they had embraced the new bands like Yaz, Thompson Twins, and The Human League. I even heard this single from a new singer “Holiday” by Madonna. Every song, with every thumping beat made my cares go away.
That dance floor at The Copa also had a scent in 1983; Chanel Antaeus. I had seen the commercials but had not connected this scent with that until I asked. I would buy a bottle a few years later as I was just beginning to add more to my dresser. It is still a great powerhouse. It was the second perfume of Jacques Polge’s time as in-house perfumer.
Antaeus is a product of its time as a strong leather chypre. It goes through the same herbal citrus top accord prevalent back then. It also uses clary sage, basil, thyme, and coriander as the herbal contrast. It has always been that which captures my attention. It moves towards a leather accord given a hint of sweaty insouciance through castoreum and musk. This all goes on the traditional oakmoss-laden chypre base.
Of those early Chanel masculines I wear Egoiste and Pour Monsieur Concentree most often. When I need to dance it out then I spray myself down with Antaeus and turn the music up.
Disclosure: Based on a bottle I purchased.
As I mentioned two weeks ago these types of social media challenges are not my thing. I’ve happily avoided every tag I’ve received. Part of what made this different are the times we are living in. Ever since I’ve been quarantined I have been spending time with the perfume masterpieces in my closet. The time I spend with the classics is therapeutic. I lose myself in the perfume which then takes me to other places. I have never appreciated the way fragrance acts as a time machine/ Star Trek transporter, more. I can close my eyes and find myself lost in a memory. I can do the same believing I can reach out and touch the place my scent of the day has taken me.
This is the quality of art which is at its apex in these days. Great art reminds you of the glory of the world outside your four walls. I have been availing myself of all of it to uplift my spirits. It works as I take time every day to allow art to work its magic. Therefore this challenge was interesting to me. I was already letting scent into my life in a larger capacity than before.
I had all ten days figured out before I ever started. Those who know me well are not surprised. Even so I was excited to apply the therapy writing also supplies over the last two weeks. I was inspired by M. Benard. He has always found the place where scent exists as the connection between the other arts. I was psyched to try my amateur version of what he does so naturally. One thing I take away is a desire to try and do more of this.
At the end of it all I look back at the pieces of this challenge that moved me emotionally even though it is my experience I was communicating. It reinforces all that I love about perfume and writing about it. There has been nothing better to feed my desire to keep on doing that.
My heartfelt thanks for the catalyst M. Benard provided for these discoveries.
I’m going to end this where I began it with a scent of my childhood. In the South Florida neighborhood I grew up in we had a small citrus orchard nearby. It was run by Mr. Meeks who would hire us as his pickers when the fruit was ready to be harvested. It was the first money I would earn for myself. After a day of work I got a crisp dollar bill for my effort. When we took a break for lunch, we would sit in one of the trees and pick an orange for dessert.
The scent of those days was beautiful. The sun slanted down through the green leaves as we picked the fruit and placed it in a crate. Mr. Meeks would come by and pick it up. The green woodiness of the trees and the leaves combined with the citrus for a scent which can take me back to those days over fifty years later.
Citrus within modern perfumery has become synonymous with warm weather. I have a natural attraction to the best of them especially when they connect with my memory.
When it comes to orange there is no perfume which has ever found that place for me better than Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine. This was the star of creative director Sylvie Ganter’s debut cologne absolue collection. Ten years on it is probably the flagship of this very successful line.
For lemon it also is from Mme Ganter’s brand with Atelier Cologne Citron d’Erable. This is the definition of a cooler weather citrus perfume. Adding maple syrup as the sweet counterweight to the lemon is a brilliant choice. This is the chill of sunset sitting at the top of the lemon tree watching for the flash of green.
Chantecaille Vetyver has my favorite grapefruit paired with the other warm weather perfume ingredient, vetiver. In this case the sulfurous nature of the rind is allowed to find harmony with the sharp green facet of vetiver. In between is the tart pulp of the fruit. There was a study that wearing grapefruit makes people seeing you as younger than you are. I wonder if they see my inner ten-year-old when I wear this?
I’ll have some closing thoughts about the whole challenge tomorrow to bring this to a close.
If there is anything I associate as the scent of luxury it is leather. Leather always seems like an upgrade. Ricardo Montalban would tell me soft Corinthian leather was part of the luxury of the automobile he was hawking. The pieces of leather I’ve owned all seem like some of the most high-end things I own. Part of that is the smell of leather. There is something primal and opulent about it.
Leather has been a staple of modern perfumery since the 1927 release of Chanel Cuir de Russie by perfumer Ernest Beaux. Here is the thing there is no such thing as leather essential oil. When you smell leather in a perfume it has to be a created accord by the perfumer to smell like leather. When I learned this I realized whenever I smelt leather in a perfume, I was encountering a perfumer’s signature.
Because there is no one recipe every perfumer creates their own version of the accord. M. Beaux would use one of the materials used to tan leather, birch tar, as the foundation for the one in Cuir de Russie. Ever since, each perfumer has had the opportunity to evolve the making of their accord as more and more ingredients became available.
This has resulted in perfume with differing leather effects. They can be subtle as a driving glove to as robust as that original saddle leather. Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour would make different leather accords for different compositions. He combined styrax and birch tar for the classic leather vibe. Frankincense, davana, cistus, and saffron form a piquant version. Angelica seed, blackcurrant bud, and tomato leaf form a raw untanned scent. My favorite is his combination of castoreum and ambergris. There is just the right balance of refined and animalic that is near perfect.
Quentin Bisch (l.) and Marc-Antoine Barrois
A recent pair of releases shows the difference ways a leather accord can be tuned to very different styles of perfume. Perfumer Quentin Bisch working with Marc-Antoine Barrois. Released their first perfume based on a leather accord called Marc-Antoine Barrois B683. This is that luxurious leather accord I spoke of at the beginning. This leather caresses and envelops me in all the things which make leather great. They would return a year later with Marc-Antoine Barrois Ganymede. This time the leather accord is used in a near transparent way allowing immortelle to tease out the ambergris I am pretty sure is there. This makes it that kind of salty animalic that I enjoyed so much by M. Duchaufour.
Leather is one of the most important accords in all of perfumery. It also allows the perfumers an opportunity to append a scented signature to their works. This is why I adore it.
There isn’t a great movie about perfume; yet. There is a great movie which features perfume prominently. As of now 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is the best depiction of fragrance on the silver screen.
The movie was the eighth directed and written by Wes Anderson. Mr. Anderson has become one of the most reliable stylist auteurs working in movies. All his movies are multi-layered delights. The Grand Budapest Hotel works as a fractured non-linear tale told via time jumping.
It opens with a reporter meeting the owner of the titular edifice, Zero, in 1968. He wants to know how he went from lobby boy to owner. Zero tells the story beginning with his hiring in 1932. The man who hires him is Monsieur Gustave H. He is the majordomo of the hotel in its heyday. In control of everything from his appearance to his guests needs.
The important part of his appearance is his own signature perfume L’Air de Panache. People know where he has been if they smell it in the air. After one harrowing experience in the movie the first thing he asks for is some L’Air de Panache.
This is the depiction of the concept of the “signature scent”. It has never been depicted in a movie as well. For Gustave H it is part of who he is. He allows fragrance a piece of his personality to present to the world. When he has been deprived of it, he wants it.
For most who wear perfume this concept is what draws them to it. To have a scent which speaks to the world around you. I would say it is a piece of the popularity of artisanal and niche perfumery. That desire to find a scent which presents the way you see yourself to others.
While I don’t have any single perfume which I would consider a signature. I do have perfumes which fit specific occasions communicating the way I am feeling.
For weekend outings Thierry Mugler Cologne or Beth Terry Mare are the fragrance equivalent of jeans and t-shirt. When I am asked to something more formal Clive Christian C or Tom Ford Noir de Noir always seem perfect underneath a tux. I can’t reduce the wide world of perfume down to one single choice. It is too wonderful to me for that.
What The Grand Budapest Hotel does is depict how the right scent makes the person.
Postscript: In the movie L’Air de Panache did not exist. The bottles were filled with water. By the time of the World Premiere Mr. Anderson turned to perfumer Mark Buxton to create an actual version. It was given out as gifts to the cast and crew at the premiere.