For a long time, beginning in my teens, my signature smell was vanilla.
I’d read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter for school and became obsessed with the detail that Mick Kelly would wear “a drop of vanilla” so that she would smell good in case she happened to run into John Singer.
I resolved to adopt this strategy immediately; lucky for me, vanilla perfumes had already started gaining popularity then in the early/mid-’90s, so I wouldn’t have to sneak into my family’s spice cabinet. In some way I’d hoped that the thick, rich, ambery scent of vanilla would advertise my cuteness, my sweetness, my fundamental harmlessness, while still conveying an indefinable allure. I wanted desperately to be loved and admired, without having to ask for it.
After a dalliance with the omnipresent Vanilla Fields, I became devoted to Victoria’s Secret Vanilla Lace scented body lotion. I wore the scent for years, until it was discontinued. The company briefly resuscitated it, after customer outcry, I believe, and though I tried to go back to it, the moment was over. I lived scentless for a little while, save for maybe a highly scented shower gel here or there.
For a variety of reasons, I managed not to date much throughout my twenties, but at a certain point I finally determined to have a bit of a spree to make up for lost time. The relationships, if you can call them that, were mostly light and short-term, though I eventually fell harder than expected for a long-haired artist named Jake. Most likely sensing my insta-intensity, he of course broke up with me after a little over a month. I was more crushed about it than I should have been; unreasonable expectations will do that. Knowing I could easily spiral into a dark, obsessive depression about it, I vowed to try to do something constructive with my mourning. I signed up for six weeks of sessions with a personal trainer, whom I ended up despising, and then also became obsessed with perfume. Specifically, at first, with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s oils.
In the beginning of my new infatuation, simply reading about their scent descriptions and reviews was enough. (BPAL’s online catalog is extremely extensive and borderline confusing for a newcomer; it actually kind of invites a lot of reading/research to even understand what you’re getting into.) Then, of course, I wanted to try a few samples, telling myself I mostly wanted to find a substitute vanilla scent, one that would hopefully be a little more mature but still warm and sweet and sultry. I wanted to recapture the certainty that came with slathering myself in a signature scent every morning, while imperceptibly inching toward a more refined version of myself that I felt like I’d earned by becoming a Responsible Adult with a Grown-Up Job in a Big City. Even though nothing hit the exact spot I thought I was looking for, I was kind of surprised that it ended up not mattering. I loved ordering samples and playing around with the temporary personas I felt I magically inherited with each new fragrance.
For a long time, despite my scented attempts to tell a story about who I really was, I never actually felt like a solid person. I always was sort of waiting to connect with something external that would somehow solve the problem of my personhood for me. (In a recent reading with her, the wonderful astrologer Aeolian Heart chalked this up to my sun sign being in Aquarius on the cusp of Pisces, an astrological placement that she says is considered weak in terms of its ability to fully express an ego identity, but not in its abilities to study, contemplate, meditate, and investigate Mysteries.) A new activity or interest was always redolent with the promise that maybe some latent part of me would be activated in a way that would draw together the disparate parts of my life into a suddenly unified, cohesive whole that finally made sense.
This is partly, of course, the seduction of consumer capitalism, but I think it was also just an extension of the way I’d always felt obliged to make other people happy, always contorting myself into shapes that were meant to gain approval and approbation; if I was responsible for other people’s happiness, safety, and well-being, then surely someone or something was responsible for mine, right? No one ever really pointed out to me that there was maybe an overlap between the two—that it was possible to self-actualize in ways that would connect with and inspire other people’s own self-actualization in ways that weren’t so co-dependent.
At any rate, as I experimented with the temporary personas that arose from my smelling like, say, graveyard dirt, a burnt-out candle, a jewel-toned vase full of rotting flowers, or a strong cup of tea surrounded by sugar cookies, I realized I was also developing the more long-term persona of a Perfume Person. The message board connected to the main Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab site was frequented by other smell obsessives, and though I never developed the kind of deep friendships through that space that I know plenty of other people have, I enjoyed lurking and eavesdropping, especially on reviews of new scents that I hadn’t had a chance to try yet. The written descriptions of how strong the notes were, what emotions and flights of fancy they inspired, and how they were similar (or not) to other scents delighted my imagination and often evoked my writer’s envy.
Naturally, of course, I eventually stumbled upon Turin & Sanchez’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which dealt with mainstream classics and niche perfumery. Aside from having known that my dad’s signature scent had been Eau Sauvage, I’d never really previously considered exploring, you know, actual perfume. Reading that book, though, led me to the decant sites like Surrender to Chance and The Perfumed Court and The Posh Peasant, where I could buy tiny samples of all these famous perfumes I was newly discovering, which then led me to the profusion of perfume review blogs, which led me to Alyssa Harad and Denyse Beaulieu’s books, which led me back to the decant sites, and on and on.
If I really became enamored of a particular scent, I would likely upgrade from a 1 ml decant to a 3 or 5 ml. But I instinctively shied away from full-bottle purchases. Full bottles were far too expensive, especially given that I knew my tastes would continue to be promiscuous and that I’d inevitably get bored before I had a chance to drain any of them. I was also suddenly scared of being tied down to one idea of myself. I wanted the permission to change who I was at the drop of the hat, as easily as I could spray on a new perfume every morning.
But even though the idea of finding a replacement signature scent had definitely fallen by the wayside, I found myself circling certain scent categories again and again—sweet scents of course, but also vetivers, cologne-y citruses, leathers, musks, incenses, and what I thought of as “grown-up lady” florals (the apotheosis of which, for me, was Neela Vermeire’s heavenly rose perfume Mohur . . . which is actually more of a gourmand scent anyway).
But then one category I would have never expected started dominating my preferences without my consciously realizing it: wet wood.
Yes, specifically wet-smelling wood scents.
I’m not joking—dry woods were often too screechy on me, and anything just straight-up aquatic was, of course, anathema after my teenage memories of the Cool Water and Aqua di Gio overdoses of the ’90s. But somehow the exact combination of wet wood drew me back to certain perfumes over and over again: Profumi del Forte’s Tirrenico, Byredo’s Encens Chembur, and Comme des Garcon’s Hinoki.
Hinoki was a recent find, so I feel like I know it the least well at this point. It’s fairly light, the way so many of the Comme des Garcons scents are on me, but surprisingly tenacious. It smells, not unpleasantly, of an unmistakably musty humidity, like it’s a stormy midsummer day and you’ve just come home to an un-air-conditioned house and made your way directly to the basement, where condensation is lightly stippling the grey-painted concrete walls and the wooden beams of the ceiling swell and creak with all the moisture in the air, where maybe the dusty old couch that’s been sitting down there forever exhales a cloud of sweet dust whenever anyone sinks into the cushions. I’m making it sound horribly creepy and claustrophobic and dank, but it’s incredibly light and comforting to me.
Encens Chembur, on the other hand, is much more spacious. Perfumer Ben Gorham’s ostensible inspiration for the scent was a park in India near where his mother grew up, and I’ve willingly let that description affect my perception of it. There is of course incense in it, but not in an overpowering way, like gales of smoke. It’s more like the ambient sweet spiciness that infuses the walls of your standard Indian buffet restaurant. Here the wet wood aspect is sweeter and warmer, like a sun-warmed dock extending out into a small lake, its continually soaked planks exhaling fresh dampness as the sun hits them, almost shaking the fragrance out of its very grain like an enthusiastic dog. For all its spaciousness and exuberance, though, it’s a soft scent on me that stays quietly close to my skin.
Tirrenico, though, is my absolute favorite. I first discovered it thanks to my subscription to beloved monthly perfume sample service Olfactif. I savored the small sample that came to me in the summer of 2014, and ordered a second smaller sample from Lucky Scent some time later, and then finally ponied up for a full bottle once it seemed like it was becoming more difficult to find online, for fear of its being discontinued and disappearing entirely. The initial blast is a bitter exhalation of licorice (or, if you really scrutinize it, more likely fennel). As the scent begins to evolve on my skin, it becomes downright briny—like oily, washed-up seaweed curlicuing along a desolate stretch of sandy beach. The bitterness eventually fades back enough to reveal, as befitting the scene, a creamy, bleached-out driftwood, as if the stumps are dotting the shoreline like wise old troll spirits, while salty mist dances fairy-like above it all. It’s the strongest of the three scents, with the most shifts and surprises. It’s an almost entirely different perfume by the end of the day, when the strong, dark chewiness of the opening is a distant memory and all I can smell are the fresh, open spaces between mineral-heavy stony cliffs.
I grew up a land-locked Midwesterner and have little to no experience with coastal life. But, I did spend many happy summers at my great-aunt and -uncle’s lake house in Michigan, and as a teenager I of course spent more than enough time in various musty basements of my various dirtbag friends, so I feel like my emotional entry point into these perfumes is mostly private, rather than performative.
It’s somewhat of a cliché these days to say, “I wear make-up for me!” or “I dress this way because I like it; I don’t care what other people think!” but perfume actually is one of the few areas of my life where I feel like I can get away with this kind of attitude. (People, I’ve worn Absolue Pour le Soir to my day job before. Not the best idea I’ve ever had in my life, but still—my perfume really and truly is for me.)
So I guess it only makes sense that I would gravitate so readily to these odd, atmospheric scents, as I continue to investigate the Mystery of my own selfhood, in true Aquarian fashion. In so many unexpected ways, I find that they in fact allow me access to the memories and emotions of the person I actually was during all those years I was attempting to hide my own odd, atmospheric weirdness in a cloud of misguidedly benign vanilla sweetness.