Scent | Notes We Hate

First things first: our scent group has an Instagram account! Check us out and follow along at

At our August meeting, which I hosted, I suggested the theme of notes and elements we hate in scent. We had a lively discussion complete with samples. Some of the most repellent scents as judged by our members are below. Try them if you dare.

  • Carvacrol: Often used as a food additive, it smells like oregano to some, burning rubber to others. Apparently Comme des Garçons occasionally uses it in their fragrances.
  • Rose oxide: This smelled quite astringent and geranium-y.
  • Iso E Super: Piney and resinous, it is the main ingredient in Escentric Molecules 01 as well as Elevator Music, a collaboration between Byredo and Virgil Abloh. On the body it seems to amplify one’s own personal scent. It’s added to a lot of cosmetics, cleaning products, and fragrances for its fresh and clean character.
  • Melonal: Smells like melon and cucumber and usually added to green scents. It didn’t bother me, but others disliked its vegetal fragrance.
  • Cassis: This one was mine. I just hate its cloying fruity sweetness. I feel like it adds an artificial-grapey scent to perfume. Yuck.

Of course when combined with other molecules or essences, these can completely transform, “disappearing” and contributing to the whole of a scent.  I don’t have the best nose or a great understanding of the science behind perfume, so to me it’s like magic. I hope that sense of wonder never goes away.



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Scent | Asrai Garden Drive-By

I’ve been doing some drive-by reviews on Twitter, where I sample something at Sephora or try a scent strip. Today I stopped by Asrai Garden in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. It’s a floral shop that also features jewelry, skincare, and of course, scent. It always smells wonderful inside.

Here are three quick impressions of a few I liked:

  • Ophir by Blackbird: Sharp yet deep woody, spicy scent. I keep going back and forth on this one. I like the complexity (its character reminds me of Strange Invisible’s Taurus) but sometimes it reminds me of mosquito spray.
  • Forêt Dormante by Lvnea: Ah, I love a dark and mysterious forest scent. This one is more mossy than woody. and kissed with flowers. As the name suggests, this is definitely evocative of a damp moonlit night under the trees. I was undecided about this one too, but after a couple of hours I decided I liked it. Maybe for winter.
  • Cedrus by Fiele Fragrances: I felt an instant liking for this one–no surprise since I always fall for spicy green scents. It reminds me of Xinu’s Monstera thanks to a fruity aspect lingering behind the cedar, of which there are three kinds. Thinking about this one for next summer.

And so I’m off to order some samples!



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Scent | Ben Gorham of Byredo

As I’ve previously noted here, one of my favorite perfumes is Byredo’s Velvet Haze, and I also recently was intrigued by a floral scent (unusual for me!) in the line, Influorescence.  Despite this, I didn’t actually know much about the perfumer, Ben Gorham, so I was very interested to hear that he was going to be interviewed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in confunction with its exhibit on artist and designer Virgil Abloh, with whom Gorham has collaborated.  (I also thought there might be a gift bag of some samples involved, and I wasn’t wrong.)

I heard about the event through my friend Debra Parr, a professor of art and art history at Columbia College and a member of the perfume group I’ve been involved with–and she also happened to be the person interviewing Gorham on stage.


Byredo interview

The iPhone camera is really not very good.


Gorham has an interesting background–he’s a Swedish national with an Indian mother and a Canadian father, and he grew up in Toronto and Stockholm. As a young man he played basketball in college and professionally, but when that fizzled out, he decided to go to art school. His career took yet another unusual turn when he met the perfumer Pierre Wulff and decided to switch from painting to scent.

As an aside, I’m always curious about how this happens. How do people have the courage, not to mention the financial means, to suddenly decide to shift gears and actually follow through with it? The latter is something that people, especially creative types, tend not to want to talk about, but I think it’s an important issue to discuss in the open. Gorham did note at one point that it’s hard to be entirely creative and run a successful business. It sounds like he had some constraints, at least, as he noted that when he began experiementing with scent, perfume was a very industrialized and therefore very expensive process, so he actually started out making candles.

Gorham is more of a poet of scent than a technical master, creating a concept that individual perfumers bring to life. He is intrigued by what he calls “collective memory” and narratives. One of his first perfumes was inspired by his memory of his father’s smell, while another was created for his wife, who doesn’t actually care for perfume. Called Blanche, it is his concept of “white,” although to me it smells like sugar–which is usually white, after all.

Scent, of course, is intimately tied to memory, as well as emotion. He and Debra talked about scientific research that explores smells’ relationship to emotion and how our brains process scents very differently from other stimuli. Gorham spoke of reliving his life though “milestones” of scent–something most people can relate to when they smell pencils, paper, and other typical school supplies in the aisle at Target come late August and early September. Andy Warhol used to hack this biological reality, only wearing a perfume for three months so he would forever associate the scent with that specific time in his life.

Finally, Gorham talked about the fact that people use perfume for different reasons today than they did in the past. Scent used to be (and still can be) a status symbol, but increasingly it’s becoming a much more personal statement. Certainly hunting down niche and unusual perfumes can be seen as its own kind of status symbol, but for others it’s a way to track down a scent that resonates on a very personal level. Witness the way more people are layering perfumes for a completely original effect–not to mention the way perfumes smell different depending on the wearers’ skin chemistry. For myself, I change my perfumes based on the season, what I’m going to do that day, who I’m going to be with, and of course my mood.

The best art, including olfactory art, tells a story. We may not completely understand it, but we can appreciate its depth and craftsmanship, or recognize some aspect of it in our own lives. Perhaps that is why Byredo is so successful.


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Scent | Taurus by Strange Invisible


Sometimes I want to be a witch. Not in the contemporary Wiccan sense, but in the medieval sense of the word. I want to be an old lady who lives alone inside the roots of a massive tree in the woods, sought out for my healing salves and potions made from roots and leaves.

Don’t we all need a little more witchcraft these days? A little more intuition and trust in the universe, rather than solely relying on our human intellect? Look where that imbalance has got us. Witchcraft and science can complement each other, like heart and mind–two halves of a whole.

That’s why I gravitate toward woodsy, green, and earthy scents—for me, they hearken back to the mystical qualities of the earliest perfumes, which were often used in religious ceremonies. They evoke a union with the natural and spiritual worlds that seems merely symbolic now, when so rituals feel devoid of real, visceral impact or meaning given our disconnection from both realms.

While situated amid abundant natural beauty, the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, with its Muscle Beach, proud freak show boardwalk, and sleek restaurants, seems about as far from this image of ancient sorcery as one can get. But Californians do love their natural and organic foods, drinks, and potions, so perhaps it is appropriate that the natural fragrance line Strange Invisible has its storefront there. As you may know, I enjoy visiting local and independent perfume shops while traveling. So I made the trek from East LA on a recent trip out west and found myself in a tiny storefront on Abbott-Kinney Boulevard .


I actually did not know much about this line, despite following them on Instagram, other than that it is focused on natural fragrance—in this case, made from “certified organic, wildcrafted, biodynamic, and hydrodistilled essences.” These are definitely personal scents, in that the sillage, or range beyond the body, is minimal. They also use custom-distilled alcohol distilled from non-GMO, pesticide-free grapes, rather than standard perfumer’s alcohol, which adds additional depth and sweetness. Consequently, they are good choices if you are going to be around people who are somewhat sensitive to strong scents or chemicals (although, to be clear, this is no guarantee that they will not trigger a reaction).

Knowing my preferences, the salesperson chose a selection for me to try. Strange Invisible has a signature line as well as one inspired by the astrological signs of the zodiac. I gravitated toward two of the Zodiac scents, Taurus and Capricorn, and spent a good 20 minutes sniffing them both on my arms, trying to decide.

Taurus kept surprising me. At first I thought it was one of those scents that is just too literally incense-like and so tend to be a little too strong and off-putting, but it softens and reveals its true nature after a few minutes. There is definitely a strong top note of geranium, which later gives way to frankincense joined by maté and oakmoss, which provide the smoky, earthy tones. Bottom notes of neroli, rose, and grapefruit soften the mix, preventing it from being too overwhelming.

I read a review on Fragrantica from someone who said this reminded them of an Aveda scent, but much more complex and sophisticated, and I thought yes, exactly. This is exactly what I am always hoping Aveda scents will be but never deliver. This is a well-rounded scent that tells a coherent story from beginning to end. It reminds me of a witch’s lair, the air heavy with strange herbs and resins.

But, you ask, are these really aligned with the signs? All I can say is that I thought I didn’t have too much  of a Taurus influence in my chart, but Taurus is ruled by Venus, and I know I need a better relationship with love—welcoming it and practicing it. My natal Saturn is in Taurus, and Saturn rules Capricorn—my sun sign. Saturn can be a tough planet, and unfortunately it has a lot of influence in my chart. Plus, both Taurus and Capricorn are earth signs, grounded in practicality and reality. So perhaps Taurus has more meaning for me personally than I initially thought.

If Taurus brings to mind a dark space lit by magic and mysticism, Capricorn is just as mysterious, but sunnier—a day market where herbs and roots are sold, perhaps. Like Taurus it features frankincense and neroli, but combined with iris, vanilla, and jasmine. Oddly, when I tried it on, I felt like it was absorbed into my body and I could barely smell anything after a while; then after I left the shop and went outside, the neroli and jasmine totally bloomed. Interestingly, Capricorns tend to be late bloomers too.

I ended up buying Taurus, but the salesperson gave me a sample of Capricorn. Since these scents stay so close to the body, I’m not afraid to be liberal with the sprays—in fact you should, as natural ingredients tend to fade faster than synthetic ones. I’ve noticed Taurus at least is still fairly long-lasting, and unlike many complex scents, it’s not overwhelming. I am definitely under its spell.

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Scent | Old Books by The Perfumer’s Story and Inflorescence by Byredo

I’m an introvert. When I was a kid in after-school care, the aides always joked with my mom that I was a terror and they couldn’t control me—because I would literally sit in the corner with a book until she came and picked me up. At the same time, I like a good party, and I need to be social. I don’t like to party for partying’s sake–I’m not a club person. I like gatherings with friends, weddings, dancing at a bar when my friend is the dj.

The two scents I tried recently at Merz Apothecary speak to these two sides of my personality. Naturally I had to try a perfume called Old Books. Conceptually, this scent is a subtle recognition of the duality of the intellect and the body. There’s a definite patchouli note, on a background of incense, which is created by frankincense, myrrh, elemi, and olibanum. The overall effect is one of warm, old paper with candle smoke hanging in the air, as if a book had gathered the smells of a well-used library over the centuries, including sweat and other human emanations. One thinks of monks hunched over their manuscripts, alchemists doing their mystical experiments, scholars studying by candlelight late into the night. It’s very soft, definitely a close-to-the body scent rather than something dramatic. Consequently it’s perfect for nerdy book lovers. I love the way the muskiness becomes more prominent during the dry-down–it reminds me of Tocca’s Cleopatra in that way, although it’s a quite different perfume.

old books

Meanwhile, Byredo’s Inflorescence could not be more opposite of Old Books. An unapologetically floral perfume, Luckyscent appropriately calls it “supercharged,” which is a great way to describe the flume of lily of the valley, magnolia, freesia, and jasmine that hits you right out of the gate. It really is like an overflowing wedding bouquet, with the various blooms asserting their dominance like a floral mood ring: sometimes it’s the lily of the valley that overcomes you, other times the jasmine. Yet this fierce floral is never piercing. Instead, this is a scent that envelops you. I envision a trellis of flowers rising from the ground at one’s feet to arch over your head, surrounding you with an almost palpable halo of scent. Unlike Old Books, this is not for a quiet evening among friends. This is a scent for the ball, to dance and dance to the orchestra until your toes bleed.

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This is why so many have trouble identifying a “signature scent”–sometimes you need a perfume for every aspect of your ever-changing mood.


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Scent | Basil

I recently joined a scent group that started up (we’re working on a name) and our last meeting was a potluck with a basil theme, perhaps in anticipation of summer. Basil is so ubiquitous in food today, but in the U.S. it was fairly exotic until the 80s. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in high school, in which a character grew basil in her garden, and our teacher had to explain to us that this was unusual for the time.


Different kinds of basil at our scent group meeting.

Basil, a member of the mint family, was certainly also ubiquitous in Asian and Mediterranean cultures for thousands of years. It was grown in Egypt and possibly used for embalming, and in India it was considered sacred. In Ancient Greece and Rome it symbolized hatred and poverty—ironic given that basil is an essential element of regional cuisines in both countries today.

Today you probably most commonly come into contact with sweet basil, Genovese basil, and Thai basil, and you may even be attuned to their subtle differences. There are about perhaps up to 150 different cultivars of basil all together, including lemon basil, cinnamon basil, and licorice basil.

For my dish I decided to do something different than the usual tomato-basil pairing, so I made this lemon pudding with a basil custard. It was really delicious and a big hit, although fairly labor-intensive, especially with a hand mixer–it took forever to get both the pudding and the custard to thicken. I was trying to think of some other combinations with basil—maybe a basil-watermelon salad, a basil-blood orange salad, basil-yogurt smoothies? Part of the custard recipe involves simmering basil leaves in milk, which could be a treat on its own. Basil iced tea, basil margaritas–some people at dinner were putting basil leaves in white wine.


My basil plant is desperate for summer.

In terms of perfumes, basil is a strong note in L’Eau du Sud by Annick Goutal, which is one of my go-to scents when it’s really hot out, as it reminds me of the smell of heat rising from the ground. I’d like to try Baime, described as basil combined with thyme and jasmine. Jo Malone, known for simple but very high-quality colognes, offers a lot of scents with basil, including Basil & Neroli and Lime Basil & Mandarin. If you just want a straight shot of basil, Demeter is the way to go. Or just rub some leaves on yourself!

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Scent | Monstera by Xinú

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I’ve been to the Yucatan Peninsula only a couple times, but enough to fall in love with the scents there. I became obsessed with the copal incense my hotel burned and the perfumes from Coqui Coqui incorporating elements from the area. As a result, my impression of fragrances from the area revolved around exotic woods and resins.

Monstera by Xinú is a little different. Its most obvious reference is the Monstera deliciosa plant native to the area. You’ve probably seen Monstera. We had one in my home growing up, and my mom used a leaf to make a print. Apparently they grow fruit, which perhaps account for a high, sweet note that reminds me of watermelon, or rather the sweetness of the artificial watermelon scents in gum and candy. That’s not to say it’s cloying, but there is a definite candylike character. Other reviewers have pointed out a pineapple note, but it’s more watermelon-y to me. Floral notes include datura, sacred ear flower, and bull horn orchid–none of which I am terribly familiar with scent-wise, to be honest, but surely they round off and soften the sweet notes of the Monstera.

Monstera is oddly both watery and lush–that high fruity note makes it seem basic, but then you smell the green complexity beneath it. The first time I tried this I thought I would buy it for sure. Now I don’t think I will. It arcs a little bit too much to the sweet, while my tastes run toward the earthy.  Perhaps it reflects an aspect of the Yucatan that I have not been lucky enough to experience yet. Smells tend to strike a chord with something deep within our brains–my mental file is only turning up Hubba Bubba on this one, sadly.

Regardless, I love the concept of this perfumer, which focuses on the scents and botanicals of the Americas, which symbolizevastness and exoticism, a permanent search and discovery.” I would almost buy a bottle just for the artwork and packaging. Check it out–maybe Monstera or one of the others will pluck one of the neurons deep within your brain case.


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Scent | Garden Tomato Toner by Burt’s Bees (RIP)

There are few things as frustrating, personal product-wise, than when a company discontinues a color, a scent, or a cosmetic you love. So I was dismayed to find out today that Burt’s Bees has discontinued the Garden Tomato TonerScreen Shot 2019-03-23 at 4.33.02 PM, a mainstay of my skincare regimen.

I loved this product because it worked well and was affordable–but it was the fragrance that made me a loyal consumer. A nice astringent tomato-leaf scent that was truly unusual and so refreshing in hot weather. I actually looked forward to using it just for the sensory experience.

I always bought it at Merz Apothecary. When a salesperson told me today it was no longer available, I checked online to see if I could find it there. I could–for about $50 a bottle. No thanks. I decided on a bottle of Alteya Organics Bulgarian Rose Water instead. It smells lovely and I was assured it is a good substitute, but–sigh. My nightly cleansing routine just won’t be the same without the sharp vegetal tang of tomato plants.

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Scent: Revolution by Cire Trudon and Coven by Andrea Maack


There’s a revolution in the air. Old power structures are creaking and swaying.  More people are seeing the reality of systemic inequality and injustice in our country, as well as throughout the world. Ideas that just a few years ago would be dismissed as “too radical” are slowly becoming real possibilities.

What kind of revolution do you want? There’s the kind we know, the one with violence and weapons. Cire Trudon’s scent Revolution makes me think of the French Revolution—animalic notes of horses’ sweat, the leather of their bridles and the breeches of the rioters, a curl of smoke in the air from the fires burning across Paris. The tang of gunpowder hangs over it all. There is a palpable sense of political fervor and camaraderie—you sense banners waving in the wind and the songs sung by brothers in arms. This is a masculine scent on paper, but a unisex one in practice. (Many of the revolutionaries in France were women, after all.) This is definitely a scent for when you are in an anti-authoritarian mood, whether you are headed to a protest against government overreach or are chafing at the way your job exemplifies how capitalism renders us impotent in so many ways.


But there’s another kind of revolution. This one is quieter and has less to do with sudden outward change than with transformation spurred by internal recalibration. This is a revolution that involves seeing the world in a new way—yet also one that’s very old. It’s a revolution led by women, who for thousands of years have seen their perspectives and experiences ignored, their knowledge and intuition written off as old wives’ tales or demonized as witchcraft. Our very reality has been denied and mocked.

Andrea Maack’s Coven suggests to me a revolution based on a connection with nature that has been lost and derided under patriarchy. It brings to mind a green, otherworldly forest hung with moss and lichen, light filtering through the branches to the green floor below. It’s rife with the plant life we understand as well as spirits that we don’t—not friendly fairies and sprites, but mystical and misunderstood forces. It opens with a bright and spicy green note that heralds a scent of depth and complexity–a wall of green, from the canopy of treetops down to the rich dark soil. Silent and still, yet suggestive of great power. And like women, this perfume endures–it lasts all day on my skin.

So which one will it be—to the barricades, citoyens? Or will we turn to our deeper selves, finally face our wounds and failings as individuals and as a culture, learn to build a society based on what we know is good and true rather than the empty words and tired tactics of the power hungry, and break the spell of the last few thousand years? I know which one I’m hoping for.



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Scent | The Lobster


Yorgos Lanthimos makes some odd films. I was intrigued by his 2015 film The Lobster but waited to see it when it was available for streaming because I heard it was good, but very weird. (I tend to avoid movies with emotionally charged violence and extreme pathos, because FEELINGS.) I don’t know if I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was an interesting experience. (If you haven’t seen it, the plot is basically this: marriage is a requirement, to the point that single people have to go to a sort of hotel and find a mate within a certain period of time, or they will be turned into an animal of their choice; hence the title. The main character escapes the hotel and lives with rebels in the forest, who have gone the other way and banned any and all romantic intimacy.)

So last night it was appropriate for me to wear a perfume inspired by The Lobster to see Lanthimos’ latest movie, The Favourite. This one has less social horror in it, or shall we say the social horror is presented through a specific historical lens, that of the reign of Queen Anne of England in the early 1700s. Interestingly, both movies feature moments of animal cruelty, which I always find difficult to bear, even if I know it is only happening on a scree. And the one in The Favourite is not as bad as in The Lobster, but it still made me very uncomfortable.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that my overall impression of The Lobster (the perfume) is one of green harshness that barely abates through the dry down. The notes are listed as lily of the valley, leaves, cypriol, water, cedar wood, myrrh, arnica, fenugreek, animal notes, humus, and moss—this correlates with the action in the second half of the movie, which takes place in a forest. Yet while these scents would seem on paper to be soothing and earthy, my overall impression was one of an almost metallic artificiality—something that should be pleasant but for some reason, just isn’t.

I kept waiting for the scent to change into something more laid-back, but it never did. I didn’t even notice any change over time—it’s like all the notes are just blaring at you incessantly, losing only volume as it fades.

It’s an odd fragrance—very cerebral. This could be on purpose, in that the perfume makers (Folie a Plusieurs, who have series of scents based on cult, classic, independent, and contemporary movies) are making a statement that reflects the message of the movie—love, which is supposed to be enjoyable, or at least something that enriches life, isn’t when it is either artificially enforced or banned. The marriages that we see result from the required matchmaking in the hotel are awkward and unnatural—kind of like this perfume.

If this is in fact the concept of this fragrance, it seems to be a successful one, intellectually speaking. However, smells by their very nature appeal to an ancient and even primitive part of our brains—more so than any other sense. In this way, the perfume is a failure, because scents are at their best when they tap into those mysterious sources hidden in our neurons. When a scent only arouses thoughts in our conscious brain, it is something lesser. An amusing exercise, nothing more.

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