My first bottle of perfume was a bottle of Charlie purchased at Eckerd Pharmacy in 5th grade. It smelled wretched, like a mixture of mothballs and formaldehyde.
But perfume was a passport to adulthood. And because I wanted nothing more than to be a grown-up, I dutifully splashed myself with the nose-crinkling concoction daily. I graduated from Charlie to the syrupy floral juice at Bath & Bodyworks. As my babysitting loot grew, I veered toward more expensive scents. They all disappointed me. Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue’s smelled like a lobby in a mega-hotel chain. Anna Sui’s Sui Dreams was as suffocating as a cocoon of cotton candy. Ralph Lauren’s Romance was as unique as an air freshener.
I started to think perfume was an over-priced commodity, an olfactory weapon meant to lure clueless customers into the nearest Hollister.
But when I read Tom Robbins’ book Jitterbug Perfume, I truly began to respect scent as wearable art. Jitterbug Perfume is a self-described philosophical saga — but at its heart, the novel is about the creation of a very special perfume that doubles as an elixir for eternal life. There are several pages that lovingly describe the emotive powers of perfume, but this may be my favorite passage:
Nature’s cluttered dressing table, there is no scent to truly match it, not hashish, not ambergris, not decaying honey itself. Beet pollen, in its fascinating ambivalence, is the aroma of paradox, of yang and yin commingled, of life and death combined in vegetable absolute.
After reading the book, I was suddenly determined to unearth a different kind of perfume — one that didn’t smell like the unofficial fragrance of Mean Girls 2.
Legend has it that the shop featured in Jitterbug Perfume is based on Hove Parfumeur in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The shop on Chartres Street, which reminded me of a magic shop, is also the manufacturing epicenter: Every corner is stacked with jugs of fermenting perfume potions and jars of vetiver roots.
After an hour, I finally chose Tea Olive (produced with actual trees grown in the area) and Carnavale, named after NOLA’s most famous holiday. (It’s also one of Hove’s oldest and most popular scents.) Together, the perfumes perfectly encapsulated the eccentricity and cacophony of New Orleans.
I’ve continued the quest close to home — at Brooklyn’s CB I Hate Perfume. Unlike Sephora, which has been designed and calibrated to activate your PURCHASE EVERYTHING NOW instincts, CB I Hate Perfume is minimalistic and stark. The shelves are lined with a monochromatic rainbow of clear and amber-colored liquids in hand-labeled glass vials.
It’s more like a laboratory than a shop, where you can layer scents summoned from the perfumer’s personal memories. The selection includes In The Library (a blend of actual books, Russian & Moroccan leather and wood polish) and Winter 1972 (a mixture of fresh, untouched snow, woolen mittens covered with frost and a hint of frozen forest & sleeping earth).
I immediately designed my own perfume by layering two scents that captured a hiking trip at Multnomah Falls in Oregon. (I settled on Soaked Earth and the very unfortunately titled perfume in the photo above. Combined, it smelled like a foggy forest after a storm.)
There seems to be a trend toward more pseudo-personalized, “bespoke” scents. Margiela’s created its own line of “Replica” perfumes, which capture specific moods and moments. The offerings are a mixed bag of highs and lows. (The lows include the lazily named “Lazy Sunday Morning,” which smells more like laundry detergent than delicate, body-warmed sheets.) Meanwhile, Tom Ford has created his own line of luxurious “private blends” that include insanely rare ingredients, like wood that’s been burned in the temples of Bhutan. Needless to say, the juice doesn’t come cheap — everything starts around the the $215 mark.
I’m still on the hunt for more hand-crafted perfumes with memory-summoning powers and fascinating backstories. (And if you’re interested in hearing more about artisans perfumery, check out Slate’s “How Does a Perfumer Work?” podcast.)
If there’s a perfume you love, tell me about why it means so much to you. I’d love to hear your story.