History of Personal Scents | Ysatis

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 7.37.28 PMGivenchy’s Ysatis, which I wore in college, was my first “grown-up” scent—i.e., one that I bought for myself at a department store, not a drugstore. I cannot re-create the exact scent in my mind, just that it was complicated and lush enough to make me feel like I was rich—indeed, Fragrantica says it “smells like luxury” and lists a total of 18 notes among the top, heart, and middle, from citrus to tuberose to civet–fresh, feminine, and musky, all at once. One review said that Ysatis straddles three different categories: oriental, floral, and chypre. That sound about right. It is a hard scent to categorize.

Like Giorgio, Ysatis smells rich, but not American-style, in-your-face, showy LA rich. This is disciplined luxury–mysterious evenings at secret bars in New York or Paris. If it were a color, it would be the velvet blue of the deepening evening sky, with its promise of the mysteries and excitement of the night ahead. A spray of stars would denote the myriad notes in this complex scent–fresh, feminine, and musky, all at once.

I also remember the bottle, with its architectural lines and sharply angled cap that evoked an art deco skyscraper. The scent and the bottle  were important little symbols of opulence in my resolutely middle-class existence, offering a peek into a rarefied world I only knew from books and magazines, and would get small glimpses of from my wealthier classmates at my university. Ysatis helped to satisfy my longings for a more international and cosmopolitan life. When I started wearing it, I had been through a lot in life , but essentially I was still a naive college student from a relatively privileged background desperate to prove how sophisticated and knowing I was. The scent hinted at a world whose complexities, obscured motives, and masked desires I was just coming to see and be puzzled by, even as I masked my own wishes and desires from others, and especially to myself.

My last bottle disappeared, along with one of my favorite handbags, sometime during my sophomore year, when I lived at a sorority. We rarely locked the doors to our rooms—why should, since we were all “sisters”? Other items from other women went missing, and rumors swirled around one member in particular, that she was a kleptomaniac. I have a distinct memory of her coming into my room and smelling suspiciously like my Ysatis. When she left the room, I realized my bottle was gone. I hadn’t worn it for a while, so I hadn’t noticed it missing.

I didn’t replace it. I became interested in natural perfumes and never went back to designer fragrances.

The sense of smell is strongly tied to memory. Certain scents can encapsulate an era, a life stage, or even a specific incident. In this series of posts, I’m going through some significant scents throughout my life, starting from childhood. You can see all of them here.

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Scent | Tatine Candles

Tatine

Image from tatinecandles.com

High-end scented candles are one of my occasional indulgences.  Like many, my introduction to the world of high-end candles came via the French brand Diptyque. There is nothing like the fragrance of a Diptyque candle–so pure and original, so different from the powdery and artificial scents of less expensive brands (Feu de Bois was my favorite). Or so I thought, until I discovered Tatine Candles.

I can’t remember if someone first gave me a Tatine candle or if I stumbled across them in a shop somewhere. What I do know is that I’ve never bought another brand since. If I could physically wear Forest Floor, I would (and I have in fact smeared the wax on my neck and decollete).  It is one of those scents that engenders a sense of both surprise and familiarity–“ah yes, I know this.”

In fact I do remember getting a Tatine candle (not Forest Floor) as a gift and someone saying after a sniff, “This is so you.” So perhaps their is something about Margo Breznik’s approach to fragrance or to life that matches my own. Is it a coincidence that Tatine is headquartered in Chicago, my hometown? While my favorites are the combinations, so full of depth and mystery (especially Kashmir and St. John’s Wood), the one-note concoctions are similarly complex.

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Time to order some more.

Breznik, who recently moved operations to a new and larger space, is committed to green practices. She uses GMO-free vegetable soy wax for the candles, recycled glass in her containers, and vegetable-based inks and recycled materials for packaging.

Best of all, the costs are very reasonable for a luxury candle. The prices top out at $38 to $40, with a 50- to 60-hour burn time. Votives are available for less than $20 with a 16-hour burn time. You’ll also be supporting a small woman-owned business.

I love Tatine Candles and the independent, brave spirit of Margo Breznik. If you are lucky enough to live near a stockist, do go check them out.

 

 

 

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Scent | Copal incense

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Incense is a polarizing thing. Perhaps many of us associate it with macramé, pot, and other symbols of the 70s. Or you’ve been in a home or shop that just reeks of some cloying scent, and when you come out, the fumes are embedded in your hair and clothes. I’m not a huge incense user, especially since too many particulates in the air aggravate my asthma, but occasionally I do run across some I like.

I picked up this copal incense on a trip to Tulum, Mexico, a couple years ago. The place I was staying in burned it in the shared bathrooms. I liked it enough to buy some as a sensory souvenir of my trip. And now I’m down to my last stick! I don’t really want to buy another kind since I suspect it might not be the same. Maybe I have to go to Tulum again.

Copal resin, from a tree native to Mexico and Central America, has apparently been used as an incense since ancient times in Mesoamerica. Like sage, it has often been used as a purifier to clear spaces or people of negative energy. I sometimes burn it while I’m meditating, and while I can’t say I notice any obvious difference in the energy in my living room, it definitely adds to the atmosphere. It smells like an exotic perfumed wood, as you would expect, but not in an overpowering way, and it doesn’t linger too long.

I’m actually incorporating my interest in natural scents for a project in one of my grad school courses, and I created a dedicated Scent and Stone Twitter account for it. I suspect that the explosion of interest in niche fragrances and natural perfumes stems from a desire to return to a more authentic and intuitive way of living that is connected to the earth—especially as we are becoming more and more severed from nature as corporations and the super-wealthy continue to exploit resources for short-term gains, and as technology allows us to ignore the diurnal rhythms humanity has evolved with and lived by for millennia. After all, smell is one of the most primitive senses.

While the independent fragrance trend could be seen as just a fad, I do think it is driven by something deeper. Lately I have been reevaluating my choices and trying to rearrange my life in a way that aligns with my own needs and intuition, rather than the expectations of a culture that is often toxic for the planet and humans themselves. Maybe it’s ridiculous to think that exploring the meaning of natural perfume can illuminate a greater cultural change in society. This project will help me find out.

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Scent: The Fundamentals of Fragrance workshop

img_4765If there is anything better than discovering unusual scents, it is mixing your own. I was pretty excited when I saw that the Department of Curiosities (a combination storefront/workshop/event space run by designers and all-around wonderful women Jamie Hayes and Gerry Quinton) here in Chicago was hosting a fragrance workshop.

The event description for the “The Fundamentals of Fragrance” said we would blend raw resins and woods to “to make an ancient fragrance.” Tanja Buhler, who I’d met before at a party Jamie hosted, would be leading the workshop. We’d had a fascinating and informative discussion about perfumes—she has a background in beauty and fragrance, and helped Merz Apothecary open a new and expanded perfume section. Sign me up.

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Tanja Buhler

Upon arrival, the big table in the main room had been set up with large glass vessels labeled with the name of the essences inside. After some cocktails and chat, Tanja gave a brief introduction to the history of fragrance, explaining that originally resins and woods to burned to create scent (the word “perfume” derives from the Latin words “per fumus,” or “through smoke”). Frankincense and myrrh of course are some of the most ancient fragrances known to man, and she showed us two different kinds of the former, one of which is more medicinal and can be ingested

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After that Tanja instructed us to put on our new silk eyemasks (available as part of Department of Curiosities’ decadent and gorgeous lingerie line), and sightlessly go around the table to slowly breathe in the scents inside without looking at the labels, allowing ourselves to register our impressions and reactions. Some were recognizable, like fir and cedar. But others were more mysterious. One essence, which turned out to be spikenard Himalaya, had a strong note of cocoa. Another, cajeput, had an almost confectionary smell, like an old-fashioned candy store. I asked Tanja where she sourced them from, and she told me someone local actually makes them for her.

After some more (sighted) sniffing, we were instructed to choose three fragrances, from which we would create our perfume. I decided to go with my gut and chose camphor, cajeput, and myrhh (although I was also tempted by cedarwood and cypress). Other attendees had different systems. One woman chose scents from each of the three different continents represented by the offerings, an “around the world” approach.

Creating a fragrance this way is almost an interesting psychological test. What does it say about you if you gravitate more toward the heavy scent of fir alpine, for example, over the more delicate balsam of Peru? Individual formulations seem to reflect some mysterious, barely-grasped truth about our essential selves.

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The final product.

If that is the case, mine surprised me a little bit. I usually love woodsy scents, and mine turned out surprisingly green (although it gets woodier on the dry-down). As I mentioned in my post about Coriander, in the past I haven’t cared much for green scents, but that seems to be changing. Does that reflect some sort of shift within my inner being? Or is it a momentary or seasonal preference? I think this is part of the reason I am so intrigued by perfumes. They seem to tell us something about ourselves.

Tanja invited us to name our fragrances. I chose L’Hiver, because even though mine smelled green, it reminded me of a forest path in the snow. So perhaps it is more accurately Vert en l’Hiver (please excuse my incomplete knowledge of French). I’ve been wearing it on special occasions as it is extremely unlikely I will ever be able to create the same scent again. That is perhaps also what I love about perfume–its ephemeral quality reflects our own impermanence.

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Stone: J. Crew earrings

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I don’t wear a lot of big, sparkly jewelry, perhaps because my social life consists mainly of dinners with friends, not society galas. But something about these earrings at J. Crew called to me—maybe the irregularity of the shape and the neutral colors (they also come in a version with sherbet-colored stones). Or maybe I was influenced by this recent New York Times Style Magazine piece about the renowned costume jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

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I also don’t buy a lot of jewelry from chain stores as a rule—I tend to gravitate toward smaller brands and independent artists because the designs tend to be more creative and for the “shop small” ethos. In fact, I’ve bought pieces at J. Crew before, only to return them a few days later after realizing that they weren’t really me. However, I’ve already worn these several times in just a couple weeks. It’s the holidays, of course—and even if I’m just having dinner with family at home, it’s fun to do it up right. After all, I’m someone who used to tell my styling clients that you can get away with wearing a ball gown to a breakfast meeting with the right attitude. In fact, maybe I should do that some time in 2017—with a jacket thrown over it. And these earrings.

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Stone: Buying Jewelry as a Gift

Although I don’t do it often, I’m pretty good at buying jewelry for people. I have helped two friends pick out engagement rings (which were big hits) and have advised numerous others on holiday and birthday gifts. But I do understand that figuring out what someone would like is a proposition that fills many with dread–especially if a significant amount of cash is at stake.

So now that we’re going into the holiday season, I decide to write this service-oriented post based on one simple tip: Figure out what they like beforehand. Then you can figure out the best store to go to (more on that below) and isolate the kind of pieces your giftee will like. By doing this prep work, you narrow down your choices before you even get into the store.

But how do you know what they like? Easy. Look at the type of jewelry they wear. Not that they own, but what they actually wear.

Does he/she wear:

  • Beads, metal, pearls, gems, natural materials (wood, bone, horn, leather), or other materials (Bakelite, rubber, plastics)?
  • Silver or gold? (Are they allergic to any metals?)
  • Big, bold designs (e.g., chunky necklaces, long earrings) or smaller, more traditional pieces (e.g., stud earrings, simple rings, small pendant necklaces)?
  • Earrings, necklaces, bracelets, or rings? Or all of the above?
  • If they prefer non-metallic jewelry, what colors do they favor? Neutrals (brown, black, white) or brighter colors (red, purple, blue)?
  • Unusual and striking designs or more traditional designs, such as a locket or a small pendant or religious symbol?
  • Long necklaces or chokers?
  • Intricate or ethnic designs (like the lacy ornate designs of Indian jewelry) or simple ones (hoop earrings or plain bangles)?
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Don’t buy something like this for someone who only wears simple jewelry.

  •  If they like gems or minerals, do they like pieces with one big gem or lots of little ones?
  • What color gems or rocks? Clear/white (diamonds, clear crystals), red (ruby, garnet), blue (turquoise), green (peridot, emerald), black (hematite), etc.

If you’re not sure of your choice even after that, buy jewelry someplace that takes returns (department stores and chain stores). However, keep in mind that the designs tend to be either very trendy or traditional at these places. If your giftee prefers more unusual and unique jewelry, you will likely have more luck at specialty boutiques and holiday fairs where jewelry designers show and sell their work—but those sellers may only offer store credit or no returns at all. Ask about the return and exchange policy. And of course you can always take a fashionable friend who knows about these things. Finally, knowing the answers to the above questions can make it easier for a salesperson to help you out.

 It’s the thought that counts—and if you take some time to think about your giftee’s style and preferences, it will show in your gift, and they will appreciate it. Good luck!

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Thoughts on New England, autumn, and Coriander by D.S. & Durga

img_4618I’ve been on the East Coast all week. The weather has not been ideal, but it’s still a treat to experience fall in New England. I took a train between New York and Boston and watched the water and the little towns go by. I went to visit a friend who lives in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in the most adorable small house with a wood stove, surrounded my nearly an acre of land with a tiny cemetery on it. As always, I admired the flat salt marshes of the southern shore that seem to merge into the ocean, the simple American colonial homes that look so cozy, and the bright red cranberry bogs that flash by as I drove the back roads.

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Yesterday I went to the Daniel Webster Wildlife Refuge in Marshfield, where my brother and his family live, and tramped around fields and forests in windy, overcast weather for a good hour and a half without seeing another soul. I was reminded again that I would really love a perfume that mimicked the ineffable and bittersweet scent of decomposing leaves in the autumn forest—it would be like capturing time in a bottle. (According to suggestions on the Internet, a few fragrances do come close.)img_4625

I did pick up a new perfume when I was in New York. I stopped by Love Adorned in Nolita, and after inquiring about the price of a vintage gold ring in the shape of a lizard (which turned out to be, um, beyond my price range), I turned my attention to the much more affordable fragrances. I’d sniffed several in the Brooklyn-based D.S. & Durga line before, but while they were all complex and interesting, none really grabbed me. And none were really grabbing me in the store either. It was only after walking around the neighborhood a little more and repeatedly sniffing the Coriander on my wrist that it won me over. It’s definitely a green scent, which I don’t usually care for, but also spicy, deep, and mysterious–much like the nature of autumn. I’ll probably be wearing this exclusively for the rest of the year.

img_4633Hope you are able to take the time to breathe in the scents of autumn this year.

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I’m still here!

Just very busy as I recently started a graduate program. I haven’t bought any new scents lately, but on a recent trip to Lake Tahoe and the Napa Valley in California, I inhaled air that was as heady as perfume. In Lake Tahoe, the air smelled of sun and pine, truly amazing. Unfortunately I seemed to be a little allergic to the pine (or something else), as I was sneezing a lot! In Napa (actually the Alexander Valley), grass and grapevines mixed with eucalyptus for an unforgettable scent. Of course someone has already made a perfume inspired by the area. I’ll have to try it.

I was inspired to post by this New York Times article about Louis Vuitton and Dior establishing perfumeries in Grasse, the center of the perfume industry. I’ve always thought of contemporary designer perfumes as generic scents designed to give customers at the lower end of the income spectrum something to buy. Sounds like they’re starting to put some real effort into them–perhaps with an attendant rise in price. We shall see.

Here are some pictures from my trip–you’ll have to imagine the scents of the fields, vineyards, and mountains.

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Scent | Vacation Fragrance & Oahu by Nomaterra

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After too many incidents where my perfume bottle leaked all over my stuff, I learned not to bring them with me on flights. For years a little solid compact of Lush’s Karma was my go-to vacation scent. I love it, but it’s nice to consider other options.

As a personal stylist, I used to caution my clients against buying new clothes for vacation, or bringing outfits they wouldn’t normally wear. One, our ideas about what the locals are wearing is usually off, and two, it can be very artificial. Think of tourists with awkwardly wrapped scarves (or worse, berets) in Paris.

Perfume, though, is different. Why shouldn’t you escape into a different persona with a different scent? Or tailor your fragrance to the surroundings? Some things just don’t translate on vacation. Just as you might not order your favorite dry martini in Mexico, a very heavy oriental scent might also be a bit jarring in tropical surroundings.

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I just made reservations to go to Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, for my spring getaway. It’s the perfect time for me to break out Oahu by Nomaterra, which I picked up at the Renegade Holiday Craft Fair late last year and put aside while I figured out where to wear it. I wasn’t really sure why I bought it at the time, but I liked the idea of scents inspired by cities, and none of the other ones were really clicking for me. Normally I don’t wear such tropical scents, even though I love the smell of jasmine and other flowers from the region. Now I can see that it’s a perfect, light, beachy choice for an island vacation. And the roll-on bottle makes it less likely it will leak en route. Maybe I’ll start wearing it at home to get me in the mood for my travel adventure.

The frangipani note also reminds me of a bottle of perfume oil I bought somewhere in Tucson on a road trip decades ago, with “frangipani” handwritten in a girly script on a sticker affixed to the vial. I’ve never smelled anything like it since—it was so arresting that people regularly remarked on it. This isn’t quite it, but it’s the closest anything has ever gotten. But that’s another story.

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Scent | Samphire by Laboratory Perfumes

I noticed a couple months ago that Anthropologie has really expanded its in-store perfume selection–and taken it a little more upscale. Of course I had to sniff my way through the new offerings. Meet my newest obsession:

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Samphire is like a more intense version of the feeling I get from wearing Maderas. I love Maderas, but it does have more of a warm-weather feel to it. As the icy cold of winter started to set in, I was feeling the need for something just as exotic, but a little stronger. And here it is.

Samphire is an excellent illustration of the weird alchemy of perfume.  According to Google,  Samphire is “a European plant of the parsley family that grows on rocks and cliffs by the sea,” suggesting a marine fragrance. Anthropologie put it in the “woodsy” category. I’d categorize it as spicy, with a sharp, almost biting herbal edge at the top. Looking into its components, citrus and aromatics play a large part in the top and middle notes, with oak moss and white amber at the base.

Maybe it does smell like the English seashore (Laboratory Perfumes are from the UK and just now are available in the U.S.)–I’ve never been there. It does, however, hint at someplace fresh and wild. I know I really love a perfume when I wear it to bed.

The other Laboratory fragrances are just as arresting. I liked the top notes of Gorse and Amber, but did not care for its dry-down on my skin. But maybe one of them will work for you.

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