Scents of Place: The Artisan Advantage
The debate over natural versus synthetic perfumes is ongoing, and both viewpoints have their proponents. It is generally agreed that mixed media compositions are usually the most successful artistically, while purely synthetic scents can lack character and seem faceless or cheap. Naturals often have issues with longevity and the unavoidable limiting factor of fewer source materials to work with. However, there is one thing that fragrances with a high percentage of natural materials can do that synthetics cannot, in my experience; evoke an actual sense of place, and “three dimensional” impressions of the real world. It is true that any aroma, not just of a perfume, can trigger a memory or an emotion. Fragrances can do it by design, and a skilled perfumer can orchestrate smells to bring forth a complex array of sensations. This is where artisan perfumery displays one of its greatest strengths – without accountants, focus groups and brand managers looking over their collective shoulders, they are free to follow their own ideas to conclusion and draw the rest of us into their world. I am highlighting just a few of these ideas from recent introductions by some of our most talented fragrance artists.
Shelley Waddington of En Voyage Perfumes created Rainmaker to celebrate her new hometown of Portland, Oregon (which is also where I live) and its unique cultural vibe. Appropriately, it has an ozonic note, but it also has a grounded feel to it. To me it smells like a wet day in the city when it has just been raining and the evaporating moisture fills the air, amplifying the smells of wet pavement, old trees, muddy earth, bark mulch, grass and crushed flowers under a dramatic sky. Anything with a petrichor note will capture my attention, and this one gets it just right. In other words, it smells very much like an idealized version of my own neighborhood, and if I step out into my garden on such a day I will have a very Rainmaker experience. It has a cologne-like transparency, yet it maintains its fresh appeal for a long time into the drydown, a testament to what a well-judged blend of naturals and synthetics can accomplish. Truly unisex, the appeal of this easy to live with scent is very broad.
The opposite of the cool wet Northwest is the desert, a place Amber Jobin of Aether Arts Perfumes knows well; Red Dodecahedron is the latest in her Burner series based on her annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. The immediate sensation from this fragrance for me is sun-baked dust sifting into everything; I have no idea how this was done but it’s very impressive. It does not stop there, but continues to develop into a sensual fragrance that includes black pepper, chamomile and a base of woods and resins including frankincense and sandalwood. It also has an animalic quality, bringing to mind the earthy denizens of Burning Man. After being in the desert sands, a cool beverage is most welcome, and her new Strawberry Sling perfume oil just hits the spot. This is a scent that emerged from the perfumer’s own experience of sipping a cocktail while smelling flowers blooming nearby, and it’s so delicious that it should have a warning label on it that says “do not drink.” A blend of lemon-scented natural essences results in the exhilarating zest of freshly squeezed Meyer lemons, mixed with a spot-on vodka accord accented with rosemary and a strawberry note paired with rose. I really loved this one, and I am hoarding my sample to wear when summer comes around again and it’s too hot for most other kinds of perfume. This is a textbook example of the kind of fun, offbeat work to emerge from the studios of indie perfumers who have free rein over their own work.
Sometimes a perfumer chooses to pay homage to Mother Nature in a more specific way; in The Voices of Trees, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Perfumes creates a scent that feels like an evergreen forest, with richly balsamic resin perfuming the air as the trees tower overhead, swaying gently in the wind. As narrow as its focus is, it is more than just a “smell” and works perfectly as a fully realized fragrance. I can’t open the vial without thinking of the woods behind my house when I was a child, a place where I spent endless hours among the pine, spruce and hemlock trees. Another recent DSH creation, the limited edition La Belle Saison evokes the sensation of fresh lilacs in the spring. Unlike virtually all other lilac perfumes, which are reconstructions that contain synthetics, this is an all-natural composition that gives the impression of lilacs without the usual photo-realistic aroma found in most of them, and contains no actual lilac. Instead, the effect is of being in a garden that has lilacs blooming but which also encompasses the other aromas of spring – green leaves, wet grass, drifts of scent from other flowers. It is as fresh and delicate as a rain-drenched panicle of white lilac blossoms, its beauty even further enhanced by its extrait de parfum concentration.
It’s not just places that can be conjured up by a fragrance. In the masterful Memento Mori from Aftelier Perfumes, natural perfumer Mandy Aftel has advanced her alchemical art yet again with a stunning creation that is sure to bring to mind not only familiar places, but a human presence. Just inhaling the scent from the vial resulted in a swirl of emotions and half-remembered flickers of the past. I felt as though I had arrived home on a cold winter night and entered a place filled with warmth; standing in the doorway of a comfortable old farmhouse filled with the sweetness of wood smoke and the funky dampness of drying-out wool coats, the lingering aftermath of baking, and most of all the musky, physical embrace of a beloved person. It is remarkable how much this fragrance evokes a living being; if you have ever held a sweater or robe that belonged to someone you loved and missed and breathed deeply of it to bring them closer, you have some idea of what Memento Mori is like. It almost feels too private to wear in public places, being meant for either solitude or closeness; on skin it gradually becomes almost unnervingly intimate, like skin-to-skin contact with a lover, and capable of bringing strong emotions to the surface unbidden. It is powerful and beautiful, but not in the least pretty. It may seem strange to ascribe such power to a perfume, but I think anyone who smells this will fall under the same spell.
Image credits: Rainy day wallpaper from crafthubs.com; Vintage strawberry patterned (actual) wallpaper detail from Etsy seller wallpaperyourworld; “Lilac Party” wallpaper from desktopnexus.com; lighted doorway at night wallpaper from desktopimages.com.
Disclosure: I received free samples from all the perfumers whose perfumes I reviewed in this post.