I’ve always been a fan of the olfactory realm– perfumes, colognes, eaus de whatever you want to call them- so, as I transitioned to working in DC beginning in the spring of 2022, I wanted to start a separate venue for writing about this completely-unrelated-to-urbanism-or-anything-else section on Handbuilt, in case anyone ever Googles any of the content herein and suddenly becomes tangentially interested in why sharrows are stupid or why distributed energy resources can Help Save America. This page will contain fragrance reviews and other notes about our, you know, shared olfactory journey. Or something.
The History and Culture
The fragrance industry is a multi-billion dollar one, and, in spite of being almost ubiquitous– whether we’re thinking about scented trash bags (?) or high-end French perfumes- it lacks much in the way of popular understanding. It’s a mixture of industrial chemistry, biological and human chemistry, and culture, that has endured and evolved since, quite literally, the dawn of human civilization. A lot of people who actually get paid to work on this stuff have pointed out that perfume goes well beyond the idea of “smelling particularly interesting to attract a potential mate,” although this precedent is well-established in both the perfume industry as well as in the animal and insect world: the olfactory part of the human brain is deeply connected to memory, and our understanding of this phenomenon– as well as of the phenomenon of why specific molecules indeed even smell a certain way- is quite limited.
The cultural element is complex, and this is well-illustrated in the very terminologies we use for scents. The lay person can easily distinguish between the idea of something that is perhaps “stinky” or “smelly,” since those terms are unequivocally negative. But there’s not really a good distinction between “scent,” “aroma,” and “smell,” most generally, except perhaps that “aroma” is often tied to discussion of food, or things that smell like they should be edible. Indeed, this last one finds Greco-Roman roots in the word for “spice,” another common term used in perfumery (even if its actual interpretation is often pretty broad).
The Chemistry of Scent
Beyond that, in the industry itself, I’ve found that there’s not really a good way to explain how things smell. Fragrantica, for example, has a sort of color-coded legend of notes in each fragrance. Some of them make a lot of sense intuitively, but some of them are completely opaque to all but the seasoned connoisseur. I would submit that the lay person has no clue what tonka bean smells like, nor benzoin. What, for example, is an “aldehyde” smell? And why does that term seem to only come up in describing Chanel No. 5, one of the oldest, continually-made, and perennial favorite, fragrances around?
There’s a weird mish-mash of linguistic and chemical oddities in this realm, because there are a lot of things that are probably pretty easily explained at the molecular level, but not when we get up to the level of “figuring out how to describe complex chemistry in lay terms to the lay person.” If I’m reading about an “aldehyde” or “lactonic” scent, I don’t think I can even tell you what the hell either of these things actually is. I suspect both of them are meant to be pleasant smells. But if we’re thinking about “aldehydes,” I also think about how foul the smell of formaldehyde is, from dissecting frogs in high school biology class. I also think about how maybe there are plenty of things that smell amazing to me in food, but that I might not want to put on my body. Chocolate and cinnamon are two great examples. Coriander, cumin, or cardamom are three other c’s that I love the smell of in food and spices, and that I might well consider in fragrances– but without actually trying out such a fragrance, I have no clue what they’d actually smell like.
A final note here is that there are plenty of scents that exist in nature solely as a molecule in the plant they’re found in. This is kind of mindblowing from a scientific standpoint, because there’s not really any evolutionary reason why a plant should just develop specific and completely unique smelly things (as opposed to, say, toxic things to ward off predators, or attractive components that make an animal eat it). While we often group basil with mint, for example, looking at the chemistry indicates that this is more of a contrast rather than a similar complement. Basil actually shares more in common with clove than it does with other herbalicious members of the Lamiaceae family (i.e. mint).
Patchouli, in contrast, has a bit of eugenol, the primary aromatic constituent of basil and clove, but it also has other chemicals that are solely found in patchoulI– inventively named things like patchoulene or norpatchoulenol. Eugenol is also present in bay leaf, cinnamon, and nutmeg, while the mint family’s famously minty components are almost all terpenes– a huge family of chemicals responsible for the smells of everything ranging from weed to mint to lemons.
With that alone, my mind is blown– not sure about yours.
Deconstructing Gender in Perfume
There’s also a confusing contradiction between things when we think about something that “should” smell a certain way but doesn’t. This is partially a combination of the historical legacy of thinking about scents as being attached solely to, say, the flower they come from, or the fruit or other edible thing they come from, as opposed to isolating it in terms of the fragrance alone. We think of lavender, for example, as a quintessentially homey, feminine, or even old-lady kind of scent– but lavender is a key constituent in many stereotypically masculine scents. The idea of gendered scents is losing popularity as the idea of gender distinctions in general in society become less of a thing. (This is the future liberals want, apparently, which, according to Republicans, will effect the complete collapse of western civilization).
I mentioned Chanel No. 5, a perfume that I don’t personally wear, but that I find enormously pleasant. It’s perhaps the most stereotypically feminine fragrance. I’ve generally found that I am more drawn to perfumes whose marketing overlords have determined them to be “feminine” fragrances. But still,
This is changing a bit in the industry, but slowly.
Toward a New Typology of Classifications in Fragrance Reviews
One thing I learned while fragrance shopping during the pandemic is that it’s really, really hard to buy things that you’ll like without the direct olfactory interaction with the product. In other words, you can’t smell things through a computer. However, as mentioned above, the fragrance industry is also really, really bad about being able to respond to customers interests in face-to-face sales. Part of this is a problem with the retail industry in general, where salespeople rely on commissions, and where products are sold more as constituents of trendy, famous brands than on their own merits.
In March 2022, I had an experience in a Neiman Marcus where I was casually browsing some perfumes. It is overwhelming to tour a Neiman Marcus, where, on my particular trip, some random douchebag was bragging to a saleswoman about his Porsche 911, and a young couple was milling about as they joked about having the exact opposite interpretation of the same fragrance. None of the salespeople were familiar with any of the scents that I personally favored (by global, well-known brands)– and found to work with my personal chemistry- but were thoroughly eager to hawk this or that to me.
One in particular a saleswoman pushed to me was, in my interpretation, utterly vile– sort of a smell of wood smoke mixed with sour milk and burnt plastic.
“This one is very popular with men,” she said, waving a paper testing strip in my face.
“It’s got kind of an oud thing going on, maybe?” I mused, smelling a particularly dark, stinky, smoky wood scent. Oud is popular in a lot of Middle Eastern fragrances, which favor a completely different profile than French or American perfumes. Done well, it is pleasantly smoky, aromatic, and mysterious, while, done poorly, it’s got this particular engine grease stank to it.
“No, it doesn’t have any oud,” she said, dismissively, with a wave of the hand.
Welp! Not much to say to that, so I just smiled, nodded, and tiptoed away.
This isn’t a good approach to customer service, of course– the customer might be mistaken, but the customer shouldn’t generally be told they’re wrong. In any case, the interpretation of scent is so utterly subjective that it may well smell like one thing to me but like something completely different to someone else.
My major takeaway from this was that it’d probably be valuable for someone to create a new way to classify perfumes. Fragrantica tries, but it’s still pretty confusing. I have vague synesthetic tendencies from years of writing bad poetry, immersing myself in sensory pleasures, and casual drug use (kidding, prospective employers!), so I tend to think about a lot of fragrances in terms of colors, shapes, and feels, rather than terms that are globally pretty damn meaningless, like referring to a “lactonic” scent when no one knows what in the fresh hell “lactonic ” even means.
This isn’t unique to me– hence why a lot of people talk about things smelling “soft” when we know that a liquid dissolved in alcohol can’t be “soft” or “sharp, it can just be liquid dissolved in alcohol. But the synesthetic nature of olfaction is just generally a thing we should lean into, given the complexity of it– and lack of good alternatives.
Bond No. 9; Britney Spears; Bulgari; Byredo; Cacharel; Calvin Klein; Caroline Herrera; Chanel; Dolce & Gabbana; Element; Estee Lauder; Geoffrey Beene; Guerlain; Hanae Mori; Kenzo; Lanvin; Maison Matine; Michael Kors; Missoni; Nina Ricci; Paloma Picasso; Salvatore Ferragamo; Shisedo; Swiss Arabian; Veronique Gabai; Versace; Vilhelm Parfumerie.
Articles About Perfumery
This is a work in progress, but it will include articles on:
- The chemistry of perfume
- Terpenes, Ketones, Esters, And You
- and more, as I get around to it.
List of Fragrance Reviews
Arpege by Lanvin – Coming Summer 2022
Avant L’Orage by Maison Matine – As it seems that most perfumes are called something ridiculous like Sexy Night Time (but translated into French for that particular cachet), calling a fragrance “before the storm” connotes a very specific vibe of calm comfort with anticipation facing something either dangerous, mysterious, or unknown. The fragrance lives up to this vibe. It’s a soft, warm scent, beginning with a heady vibe of something perhaps like snickerdoodles or sugar cookies, and settling down to a cozy, pleasantly floral drydown. The white floral element of Jasmine (jasminum sambac, or Arabian Jasmine) is faint, but still detectable. If I’m being perfectly honest, I was attracted to trying this one solely because of the packaging and the name. They say to not judge a book by its cover, but I find that packaging often communicates a great deal about a product. interestingly, the second time I tried this, I got less of the sugary scent, and more of the terpene pink pepper smell (Reviewed April 7, 2022) (⭑⭑⭑⭑)
Bal D’Afrique by Byredo – Sure, the perfume world is all about colonialism, but this fragrance’s name makes it sound a bit more exotic than it ends up being. It’s a pretty calm, warm, woody vetiver scent. But it’s not ultimately that exciting, and just doesn’t do it for me. I can see some similarities with Dear Polly by Vilhelm Parfumerie, which I recently discovered. This one has a bit more spice to it than Dear Polly. (Reviewed April 25, 2022) (⭑⭑⭑½)
Dear Polly by Vilhelm Parfumerie – Vilhelm Parfumerie was one I discovered purely by, of all things, clicking a Facebook ad, which is honestly a pretty serious rarity for me. I’ve tried six of theirs and they’re all enormously pleasant scents, nuanced and heavily reliant on florals. This one isn’t as flower-forward, with a bright, woody aroma, that particularly reminds me of Byredo’s Bal D’Afrique, which itself is described as a vetiver and citrus scent. (Reviewed April 25, 2022) (⭑⭑⭑⭑)
Fleur Burlesque by Vilhelm Parfumerie – (Coming May 2022)
Moon Carnival by Vilhelm Parfumerie – (Coming May 2022)
My Sin by Lanvin – (Coming June 2022)
New Bond Street by Bond No. 9 – I absolutely love it. The first thing that came to mind when I smelled this perfume was that it was like I was wrapping myself up in some sort of cardamom ice cream or something. Unlike a lot of the perfumes that delve into the realm of sweet things, though, New Bond is neither a sugar cookie nor a toasty caramel– it’s rather a spicy flavor that is grounded by earthy and nutty flavors like chocolate and vanilla. The cardamom is perhaps just something I’m perceiving because of the similarity in the various terpenes that overlap between the different spices and scents. Bergamot and lily of the valley, though, are the only two notes that are more purely floral rather than earthy, and these add some brightness and depth. It’s got a powerful sillage, even though it isn’t super long-lived. (Published here and on Fragrantica May 25, 2022)
Noa by Cacharel – (Coming Summer 2022)
Noa Fleur by Cacharel – (Coming Summer 2022)
Opus Kore by Vilhelm Parfumerie – (Coming May 2022)
Oxygene by Lanvin – Pretty simple– I was trying to find a fragrance that smelled like laundry detergent and someone recommended this. It absolutely smells like Gain or something similar– it’s got a lot of the nice florals but also the aldehydes as well as some more subtle, herbal aromatics. This is a bright spring day, but it’s not one that turns into, say, an evening at a fancy restaurant, or a picnic in the meadow fraught with sexual tension (I’m trying to think of things that are evoked by olfactory memory)– it’s more like you’re doing laundry and your stuff smells just ever so clean. The bottle communicates this expertly, too. Lanvin, of course, knows what they are doing. (May 25, 2022)
Poets of Berlin by Vilhelm Parfumerie – This is a deviation from the others in the Vilhelm collection in that it’s primarily not floral or fruity and instead almost exclusively earthy. Interestingly, though, Poets lists as its primary notes blueberry, lemon, and orris– the last one being perhaps the one that might well throw me since the root of the violet contains the same ionones that make roses smell, well, like roses as opposed to like other flowers that contain some of the same aromatic compounds. It’s well-balanced fragrance that has a bright, floral, fresh tobacco flavor– with a subtle undertones from vanilla and, faintly, vetiver. (⭑⭑⭑⭑) (Reviewed May 25, 2022)
Room Service by Vilhelm Parfumerie – (Coming May 2022)
Sexy Garrigue by Veronique Gabai – This perfume supposedly offers a range of notes, but basically all I smell at first is cinnamon. Not sure what this is from, because this isn’t one of the listed notes, nor is it really closely related to any of the notes that are listed. It’s possible to pick up some of the labdanum, which comes from a flower, is a constituent of many amber fragrances, which tend to be more musky, and chypre fragrances, which tend to be more grassy, but the overpowering initial cinnamon scent takes quite awhile to evaporate into these other scents. I kind of find it gross. It also contains phthalates, which I’m not as much a fan of. (Reviewed April 7, 2022) (⭑) (Scentbird)
The One, by Dolce & Gabbana (Reviewed April 10, 2022) (⭑⭑⭑⭑)
Souvenirs de Tunisie by Veronique Gabai – (Reviewed April 7, 2022) (⭑⭑⭑)
White Linen Breeze by Estée Lauder – The mutable nature of scent is one of the most interesting things to me about perfume. In the case of White Linen Breeze, the first application of this frankly smells quite foul. It is akin to thinking you’re pouring yourself a glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc and instead have ended up with a glass of St. Germain. Like, slurpy slurp on some cloying, syrupy sweet sauce. I would go so far as to say “stank.” This may well be a problem specifically with the bottle I purchased, but it’s also possible that it just has some particularly stinky aldehydic compounds. But it does dry down to a pleasant, floral scent, though, and it’s complex but limited to a range of fruity and floral “aldehyde” scents– ultimately not for me but if you like the headier floral scents, this may be worth investigating. (Reviewed April 7, 2022) (⭑⭑½) Buy this scent on Amazon.
This page is a stub, for the most part, but I’ll be adding content as it comes along, including fragrance reviews and other commentary on smelly things.