As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a bit of an obsession with fragrances. This fascination began when I was young and realized that smelling certain scents brought on a rush of vivid memories like nothing else. To this day, I can’t smell Ivory soap or sulphury well water without thinking of my grandmother and long, summer days spent running wild on her farm in Indiana. My father will forever be tied to the scent of cigarettes and Aqua Velva aftershave (thankfully, he quit smoking many years ago). Anytime I smell oil paint, linseed oil or spray-mount adhesive, I’m transported back to college where I studied art and design. Some smells immediately send me into funk of homesickness from missing California.
I actually met Ad Man in my second year of law school while on vacation in Los Angeles, staying with mutual friends. We quickly fell in love and I was heartbroken when I had to return to Chicago at the end of my visit. We traded t-shirts so we each had something that smelled like the other. (Sixteen years of marriage later, however, I gag when I have to put his workout clothes in the washing machine!) I kept that t-shirt carefully sealed in a plastic, zip-lock bag in hopes of capturing his scent indefinitely. Sadly, it faded within a few weeks. To this day, my memories of our early relationship are inextricably bound with various LA smells…the scents of salt water, eucalyptus trees, dry desert air, night blooming jasmine, bicycle grease, the mix of freshly squeezed juices at the Beverly Hills Juice Company and coffee roasting at King’s Road cafe.
I was a confirmed perfume fan from a young age, counting Love’s Baby Soft, Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Anaïs Anaïs as teen favorites. However, it was actually my mother’s death and the subsequent birth of my daughters that set me off on an olfactory treasure hunt. My mom wasn’t a big scent person, but I do remember her going through phases of wearing Gloria Vanderbilt and flirting with various Avon perfumes. When my mom died, I found myself wishing she’d had a signature scent so that I could track it down, envelop myself in the fragrance, and feel her presence again. That yearning along with my very real fear of getting the breast cancer that claimed my mother’s life and leaving behind young children, led me to seek out a signature scent for myself as a way of providing that connection for my daughters.
I started off seeking a light, clean musk that people would relate to me without consciously thinking “perfume.” I wanted something that could reasonably be the natural smell of my skin, but better. For obvious reasons, perfumistas call those types of perfumes “skin scents.” My friend M from law school always smelled so good and it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that she was wearing perfume. The scent seemed to emanate from her pores. I asked her years later what the fragrance was and it turned out to be a, very inexpensive, Cuban, baby perfume called Para Mi Bebe. I tracked it down on Amazon and ordered a bottle. It was still beautiful and brought back clear memories of law school (good and bad), but I found I couldn’t wear it because it was seared into my brain as M’s scent. It was eerie…like trying on someone else’s skin. So, my search continued.
Luckily, early into my explorations, I discovered samples and decants. Otherwise, I would have gone broke buying full bottles of perfume searching for just the right one. (To make matters worse, it turns out I have very expensive taste. This, of course, did not surprise Ad Man one bit.) Many perfume companies and retailers give out or sell small samples of their perfumes so buyers have the opportunity to experience the full range of a scent and judge its longevity and intensity before making a purchase.
Decant companies and individuals who sell decants have extensive selections of different perfumes and sell anything from a small sample to a few ounces of a fragrance decanted from its original bottle. Decants allow you to own a large number of different perfumes without having to pay for a full bottle that you might not ever get through, especially if you have a sizable collection. And, when I say sizable collection, you have NO idea! I’d say I own about twenty full bottles of perfume and hundreds of decants and samples. It’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, but in the world of perfume fanatics, mine is an extremely modest collection. Pictured here are some of the drool-worthy collections owned by perfumistas I’ve since gotten to know across the globe.
After trying a number of different samples of skin scents, I decided on a lovely one called Musc Bleu by an Italian perfumer Il Profumo. It is a soft, clean musk perfume that makes a perfect everyday scent. Mission accomplished, right? Well not exactly. I quickly realized that there are occasions on which one doesn’t want to smell sweet and soapy. For instance, there are times when I want to smell enticing and sexy as hell. There are also cold, winter days when I crave the feeling of woody, spicy warmth and humid, summer days in the South when I prefer a scent that’s icy, green and citrusy.
I came to understand why someone might “need” a diverse selection of perfumes for different seasons, events and moods. It’s a rare perfume connoisseur who considers one scent to be his or her signature and wears it year-round. I’m reminded of the time, before we got married, when Ad Man sat me down and informed me that he would be needing eleven bicycles. That sounds like madness for someone who isn’t a cycling junkie, but he went on to list each one of those eleven bicycles: a road bike, a mountain bike, a fixed-gear bike, a beach cruiser, a BMX bike, a track bike and I can’t remember the rest. Believe me, anytime my darling husband balks when I tell him I need a new perfume, I remind him of this conversation.
Through the search for my “Holy Grail” scent, I discovered thousands of other people just as infatuated with scent as me. That’s the beauty of the internet. How else would I have ever met so many others who share my obscure hobby? Perfume lovers are a generous bunch who love to share their knowledge about our mutual passion. I’ve learned more from my perfume forum friends than I ever could just poking around on my own.
In the last couple years, I’ve been sniffing samples, reading about the art of perfume making, and learning about the science of smell. (Interestingly, scientists don’t yet know exactly how our noses identify different scent molecules.) My friend S shakes her head every time I add another perfume book to my Goodreads list, but I find it all fascinating. I’ve also been saving for, buying and being gifted with an array of fragrances. It continued to bother me, though, that I’d gone in the exact opposite direction of my goal at the beginning of this adventure. Instead of discovering the one scent that would be my signature and comfort my loved ones, I’d confused their poor noses even more!
That was until recently when I had the girls with me at Neiman Marcus which is, in my opinion, the best place to peruse fragrances in Atlanta. We sniffed some new releases and chatted with Mack Jones, sales associate extraordinaire. After lingering around the Maison Francis Kurkdjian counter with Mack, we moved on to the classics at the Guerlain counter. Biggie and Smalls tested perfumes until they were scented all up and down their arms and each held a bouquet of paper tester strips. We talked about our favorite smells; chocolate chip cookies, newly sharpened pencils and puppy breath ranked high on all our lists, and each made our pick for the prettiest fragrance. We didn’t buy anything that day and I’m sure we drove the other sales associates crazy. What they probably didn’t appreciate, though, was that they’d gained two perfume fanatics and customers for life.
I, on the other hand, gained something even more valuable. I’m now able to rest easy knowing that I’ve passed along a curiosity about, and a passion for, fragrance to my daughters. When I’m gone, they’ll have a myriad of scents to remind them of me, and not all just in perfume form. I hope they will pick up a handful of topsoil and smell its sweet, loamy odor and enjoy the sharp, green scent of tomato stems and leaves and remember our attempts at gardening in the steamy Atlanta summers. I want them to smell the warm smokiness of logs burning and think back to reading books by the fireplace, the whole family snuggled in pajamas on a winter night. The girls will each have a collection of my perfumes to enjoy as well since, as Ad Man likes to point out, it will take more than one lifetime to use all the fragrances in my collection by then!
A few notes:
1. Two wonderful decant companies in the US are Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court. Ebay is another good source for fragrance samples and decants.
2. My favorite online source for perfume shopping is LuckyScent. If you live in, or will be traveling to Los Angeles, be sure to visit their boutique Scent Bar. Both have an amazing collection of high-end designer and niche scents.