Scent | Esenzialmente Laura (Rome)

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I went to Rome in October, and although I hadn’t been back for eight years, I instantly felt like I had arrived back home. I traced my steps back to some favorite spots, including the Galleria Borghese, where I gawped anew at Bernini’s sculptural genius, as well as some new-to-me spots, like the Palazzo Barberini, an often ignored museum that houses Raphael’s radiant La Fornarina. One of my favorite destinations was the Parco degli Acquedotti, a massive park with the crumbling remains of some of the giant acqueducts that crisscrossed the Italian countryside to bring fresh water to Rome. With pretty much zero park infrastructure, you are free to simply wander around, enjoying not only the ruins, which reminded me of prehistoric stone formations, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the vanishing Roman campagna.

I don’t know if Rome itself has a distinctive scent. If I had to choose one, I’d probably say diesel! I did notice, as I did in Sevilla, that people smelled very nice, and even though the city is dotted with perfume boutiques selling heavy mainstream designer perfumes, they seemed to mostly be very pleasant and subtle scents. Perhaps that’s because they bought their perfume at Esenzialmente Laura.

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This natural perfume boutique features the 43 fragrances created by Laura Bosetti Tonatto. She wasn’t there when I went, so instead I tested out some of them under the somewhat intimidating eye of her loyal salesperson, Elena, who actually turned out to be very friendly and informative.

The fragrances are grouped into seven main categories: Hespéridée (citrus), Floral, Fougère, Chypre, Boisée (woody), Amber, and Leather. I knew I wouldn’t be able to try them all, so I stuck to the fougere, chypre, and woody scents. I liked Pepé, with notes of pepper and orange, but Elena warned me people had told her it tended to wear off quickly. So, after much back-and-forth and hemming and hawing, I finally decided to also get Indaco, with top notes of sandalwood and bergamot.

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While she was ringing me up Elena told me about Laura, who she said was a genius but, I gathered, perhaps not the best at publicity, so she was excited when I said I would write about the store. Elena also got on my good side when, after asking where I was from, said, “Ah, Chicago, a beautiful city.” I said it was pretty rare to hear that from Europeans, and she said, “Why, because of the weather?” Then she asked if I was an architect. Chicago is known for its architecture, but I am only an admirer, of course!

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After wearing these scents for several weeks, I really like them. They are more subtle than I would normally wear, but sometimes you want a perfume that is more of a personal experience than a statement. The Indaco, although clearly a woody scent, nevertheless has something almost marine and astringent about it. The Pepé is indeed quite light, and so I’ve been layering the two. The result is a woody, spicy fragrance with a pronounced citrus, almost lemony tang.

Of course when I wear them I am brought back to Rome, which more than ever I feel is my second home. I feel so much myself there that I found myself wondering how I could live there again. I’m not willing to completely rebuild my life to do it at this point, but perhaps there’s a path yet to be found for my return.

Esenzialmente Laura
Via del Coronari, 57
Rome
 

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Scent | Mrs. Meyer’s Geranium Dish Soap

Yes, dish soap. Why not? Who said nice scents in your life can only be in the form of perfume and candles?

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I hate, hate, hate doing dishes. Even though I live alone and there typically aren’t that many, it’s something I’ve just dreaded since childhood. I don’t know why. I think it has something to do with memories of unidentifiable food bits floating around in the sink. Yuck. Plus I have a dishwasher now.

Still, some things need to be hand-washed, and this scent actually makes me–dare I say it–look forward to washing up. I’m not a huge fan of geraniums as a houseplant, but I do like the way they smell. Once at a greenhouse sale I got to sniff all different kinds of geraniums–chocolate mint, apple, ginger. This soap is just plain geranium, but it’s quite authentic–none of that artificial “lemon”-type smell.

It’s a testament to the effect that scent can have on your mood. Curating the product scents in your world is just another way to make the everyday enjoyable.

I was running errands yesterday–not to specifically buy more of this, but kill two birds with one stone, yadda yadda. Both Home Depot and Mariano’s were out of the geranium scent, although they had plenty of basil, lavender, and lemon verbena.

What gives? Has everyone suddenly discovered how wonderful this smells? Please don’t tell me there’s a shortage. I only have about an eighth of the bottle left.

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Scent | Cowboy Grass by D.S. & Durga

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When my mother became ill with cancer when I was about 13, several family friends jumped in to help out and take care of us when she was in the hospital. One of them was Bette, who lived just down the street with her husband and two boys. I don’t even remember my mother being good friends with her before she got sick; I think she just stepped in because she was a kind person, her sons were friends with my brother, and it was a neighborly thing to do.

As a young teenager I wasn’t really into talking to adults, especially about scary and serious things like my mom being sick, but Bette always did her best to draw me out, with mixed success. I remember she once admired a chambray snap-front shirt I was rather proud of, which was ornamented with lots of little silver studs. She told me she had always wanted to be a cowgirl, and my shirt reminded her of what she wore when she was young. I probably rolled my eyes at this, imagining a 10-year-old in front of a 50s-style tube TV with a red felt cowboy hat and a toy gun holster, and was chagrined that she associated my super-chic top with western wear, of all things.

I think of Bette when I smell DS & Durga’s Cowboy Grass. If I had to choose one word, it would be “arid.” It smells like a hot, dry prairie, with a good blast of wild herbs and wisps of woodsmoke in the distance. Masculine, yet with a femininity that’s rooted in living things growing and surviving in a challenging landscape. You can envision yourself in a long skirt in the middle of a vast field against a backdrop of sharp hills, shading your eyes against the sun going down on the horizon, alert for anything or anyone that shouldn’t be there, or waiting anxiously for someone who’s expected.

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That’s a mirage, of course, as most perfumes are. The lives of cowboys were probably mostly lonely and tragic. The geography of the West was indifferent to human need or survival. Kindness and mercy were probably in short supply. The law only mattered when there was someone around with enough power to make it matter, which wasn’t often. Any number of disasters, natural and otherwise, awaited. Cowboys carried guns for a reason.

I don’t know what happened to Bette. She lost both her sons in a terrible car accident just a few years after my mother died, a tragedy that was so awful in its sheer random cruelty that I still don’t like to think about it. Last I heard she was traveling the world and doing things like sky-diving. Because what is that kind of risk when you have already lost everything? How do you go on after that? Perhaps, like the cowboys whose lives she idealized, she simply bore the fate that had been handed to her, and continued down the trail, living a grand and terrible truth that most of us don’t ever have to truly face.

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Scent | Homemade Natural Deodorant

IMG_2238I started making my own deodorant several years ago because I was a little freaked out about the potential connection between the aluminum in antiperspirants and breast cancer. I tried buying natural deodorants, but they gave me a rash within a week or two.  There is no scientific evidence for a link between aluminum and cancer, but at this point I’m just used to making my own, plus that’s a lot fewer plastic applicators in the garbage. And you can add your choice of essential or perfume oils, which can complement your other fragrance or just serve as a subtle scent on their own.

My recipe is based on the one at The Prairie Homestead, but with one important change: try making it with a lot less baking soda, which can cause a rash, as it did on me. I reduced this ingredient to about a teaspoon and a half and have no problems, but you can add more if you feel it’s not working well enough.

  • 1/3 cup coconut oil (I used refined because unrefined tends to be gritty when you get to the bottom of the jar)
  • 1 to 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 cup arrowroot powder (available at Whole Foods, Mariano’s–basically anywhere that offers organic or natural foods)
  • 4 tablespoons cornstarch
  • essential oil or perfume oil

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Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Be warned: the arrowroot powder tends to get everywhere.

I find it’s easier to melt the coconut oil in the microwave before measuring it out. Set this in another bowl and mix the dry ingredients into it.

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Add a few drops of the perfume oil. For this batch I decided to add some lotus perfume oil I picked up recently, but I’ve used lavender, lemongrass, various mixes of essential oils, and even Aveda’s Shampure composition oil, although the full scent didn’t quite come through.

Put it in some sort of cup or jar–I use a covered ceramic jar I got at West Elm a while ago. Ta-da! That’s it. To use, just scoop some out with your fingers and smear it on your pits.

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I find this works quite well, except on very hot days I might have to reapply in the late afternoon. I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing a little jar with me in my bag. Friends have expressed interest in making their own, so I’ve passed along the recipe several times. I’ve thought about making it for holiday gifts, but it might be a little weird to gift people deodorant? I think the right people would appreciate it though.

 

 

 

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Scent | Scents for Survival

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The riverfront near where I live–a great spot for inhaling the scent of wildflowers and water.

More and more I’m coming to terms with the kind of person I am and the needs I have. For nearly my entire working life I have attempted to become the kind of person who succeeds in corporate and office life, even though I knew it was not a good fit. What other game was there, if I wanted to have a salary that allowed me to do and buy some of the things I wanted, gave me some sort of financial security, and provided a route to affordable health insurance?

One thing I know is that I’m not good at hiding my feelings. I’m sure my attitude toward the culture of corporate capitalism is one of the main reasons I’ve not been anointed as a “leader,” whatever that means in the land of buzzwords and mandatory team exercises.

I’ve also realized I’m more sensitive to environments to some and maybe most people. At my current job, I’m pretty happy with the work and my team. However, the fact that I’m trapped in an office building in a sterile suburb, where there is literally nowhere to walk except the mall across the street, makes me very unhappy. (It does have very nice landscaping, but it’s still a mall, another temple to capitalism.) So sometimes I literally drive 10 minutes to a forest preserve to walk in nature—which I’ve found really refreshes me and makes me feel grounded. It’s not a nice thing I do for myself—it’s absolutely essential. And I told my manager that when she questioned why she couldn’t find me at my desk some afternoons. Luckily she is an excellent manager and completely understood. (Of course I am still sitting there for the other eight hours . . .)

On the advice of someone in a Facebook group I joined for highly sensitive people and empaths, I checked out the website of The Happy Sensitive and signed up for some of her free emails and videos. I’m still going through them, but one of her suggestions really stuck with me: Because we tend to pick up on so much negative energy, it’s imperative that we seek out sensations and environments that make us feel good. She calls it ‘attuning to your intuition.” It’s not an extra or a thing we should fit in if we can—it’s literally a thing we need to do to. If I want to remain functional and balanced, it’s a must.

So walking in the forest and breathing in the mingled scents of dirt, leaves, and wildflowers isn’t just a relaxing walk in the park for me—it’s a way to tune in to positive energy, which helps me release and deal with the negative energy I tend to pick up on in other environments. Maybe this is also why I respond to scents so much. So now instead of thinking I should light that favorite candle on a special occasion, I light it on a normal weeknight. I bring a little pot of solid fragrance to work to smell or dab on. I burn palo santo in my bedroom before I go to sleep. I drink my tea on my porch in the morning and breathe in the fresh air. I take breaks for walks and refuse to feel guilty about it.

The thing is, this isn’t something that’s unique to me. A lot of people have these same needs–but they ignore them, because either they aren’t allowed to meet them or feel like they aren’t. And instead of expecting us to constantly conform to the culture, I think the culture should start trying to conform to us—or at least give us space to do what we need to do to be our best. Don’t force us into ugly cubicles in office blocks with nowhere to go to escape the stress or enjoy the full texture of the world and expect everyone to thrive in that environment. And if you are stuck there, stop feeling guilty about doing what you need to do to recharge yourself. Push back. Let corporate leaders know that not everyone is able to sit at a desk nonstop for eight hours without a chance to recharge in their own way. And just maybe we’ll keep inching away from this one-size-fits-all workplace mindset to create a place where even sensitive and creative people feel happy to be.

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Scent | Tea and Perfume (Russian Breakfast)

My coworker started a tea blog and we discussed collaborating and coordinating posts in which she would write about a tea and I would write about a perfume in the same family. Tea of course is very fragrant and can even include the same ingredients as perfume (rose, jasmine, etc), albeit in very different form. We’ve never managed to make it happen, but I still think posts about perfume and tea would be fun to do. And so.

I switched from coffee to tea a couple of years ago because I was having acid reflux every morning on the way to work. I also had to give up milk, and coffee without milk is just not worth it to me. Yes, I tried rice milk and coconut milk and all those things, but it is just not the same. I’ll still have coffee with milk occasionally when I’m out or on vacation, but often it just seems to harsh to me. I have become very appreciative of of the delicate nature of teas. I think my favorite is the first fresh tea I ever bought–Mariage Frères’ Russian Breakfast Tea.

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Even the packaging is lovely.

The very brief description on the Mariage Frères website says it has “a pronounced note of citrus fruit.” Indeed–it’s like lemon and oranges mixed with very subtle spices, making for a nice complex flavor with depth. I find many black teas to be rather bitter, but that is not the case here.

The perfume it reminds me of is Eau d’Hadrien, a top scent from the French perfume house Goutal Paris (formerly Annick Goutal). It’s no surprise this is a popular scent, with its complex palette of citrus notes (grapefuit, lemon, citron, and mandarin orange) spiked with piney cypress. Somehow it all combines to evoke a Mediterranean summer–in fact, this scent was inspired by Tuscan gardens, although for me it’s more redolent of Capri and the Amalfi Coast further south, where lemon trees are an indelible part of the landscape. Somehow it manages to be intense yet light and zesty at the same time.

 

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I drink Russian Breakfast tea almost every morning. I used up my bottle of Eau d’Hadrien long ago, but writing this post is making me miss it. Perhaps I need to get a sample to meet my citrus needs.

 

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Scent | Cacti by Regime des Fleurs

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I’ve been reading about empaths lately, wondering if I am one or if I am just hyper-alert to other people’s emotional states due to various childhood factors. (Empaths are people who literally feel others’ emotions, which can be a little  . . . overwhelming.) One thing that stood out to me is that empaths are drawn to water, as it helps cleanse them of other people’s emotions and restore energy.

I still don’t know if I am an empath, or even know if I truly believe there are such beings– you go down some pretty woo-woo paths when researching this stuff, but on the other hand, you can also find articles on empaths on the Psychology Today website. Regardless, I am definitely a water person, and when I read about its emotional cleansing qualities, it resonated deeply. Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I always took Lake Michigan’s presence for granted. I remember being lulled into a meditative state by the waves while I sunbathed. Later, as I traveled around the country and abroad, I always noticed the lack of a large body of water. The mountains of Colorado are beautiful, Paris is lovely, but I always felt somehow hemmed in. When I ride my bike to the lakefront in Chicago, it’s like a touchstone. I like looking at water, sitting next to it, being on it, swimming in it.

Cacti by Regime des Fleurs seems oddly named to me, as it is such a watery scent. Water notes are listed as an element, but they’re not the main one—other notes are Italian bergamot, shiso, black tea, jasmine sambac absolute, heliotrope, cucumber water, maté absolute, Baltic amber, and aloe vera. But if you have read this blog before, you know I don’t focus on individual notes. I’m not very good at identifying them, but also I’m more interested in the emotional and visceral responses to fragrances. So here’s mine:

There is definitely a spicy opening girded by white florals. Gradually the spice fades to leave the florals more dominant, yet not overwhelming, and the water comes more to the fore, with that curious alchemy that changes both notes. After it sits on my skin for a while it has a slight decaying quality, very subtle and not unpleasant. It reminds me of a lush sun-dappled pond overlooked by trees, alive yet (perhaps inevitably and naturally) skirted by traces of dying matter as well as cool stone.

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The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Chicago

Perhaps not surprisingly, the bottle is green-tinted, but synesthetically, for some reason, I think of this scent as more of a transparent purple. I’m not sure yet if it makes me feel as grounded as being in or near water–I’ll let you know. But it is a strangely familiar scent, for reasons I can’t quite identify.

So why is it named Cacti? Perhaps because cacti are known for their water-storage properties. Or more likely, as the perfumers are from Los Angeles, the elements have different associations than they do for someone in the Midwest. In that way fragrances resemble art—we all bring the sum total of our lives to the experience of smelling them. They include a quote from Peter Stafford, author of the Psychedelics Encyclopedia, by way of explanation: “Many of the Huichols and North American peyotists claim that when one eats peyote, one is ‘tasting’ oneself: if the user is pure, this cactus is ‘sweet.'”  I guess I’ll have to do peyote to find out if the name is accurate or no.

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Scent | The Scents of Spain

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One of the many courtyards featuring pools and greenery at the Alcazar in Sevilla.

I went to Sevilla in March at the very kind invitation of a friend, who was staying there for a month. I had been to Spain, including Sevilla, in 2002, and what I remembered most was the heavenly smell of the country’s gardens. I have maintained that Spain has the most fragrant gardens in Europe ever since.

In early March spring had definitely sprung but it was not quite full-blown, and neither were the scents. Still, enough wafted out of the greenery to tell me that I was right. Spain still has the most fragrant gardens.

The orange trees of Sevilla are justly famous, although supposedly pollution means that the country has to import fruit to make the famous bitter orange marmalade. The fruits still smell delicious, though, and the trees look so pretty, whether they are lining streets or in an alcazar (a garden designed during the Andalusian caliphate).

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I also love the blurring of inside and outside with these courtyards, something you see in France and Italy as well, thanks to the temperate climate.

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In my research I discovered there is a natural fragrance boutique in Sevilla, and then I stumbled on it while we were walking around! It was very like the natural perfume boutique in Lisbon–small, lots of glass containers with various top, middle, and base notes–but much, much friendlier. The kindly proprietress sprayed some samples on us and I ended up buying one called “45.” That number apparently symbolized some important dates in Spanish history, but I’m afraid my Spanish language skills were not good enough to catch all of it.

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I don’t know that I’ll wear it a lot but a few sniffs now and then bring me back to Spain. Same with the bottle of Agua de Naranjos de Sevilla, a wonderfully fresh citrus-green scent in the cologne style. Orange blossoms in fact inspired the first colognes and such relatively simple scents are perfect for summer, when the heat makes heavy and extremely complex fragrances less desirable. In fact, it’s perfect for days like today, an extremely hot and sunny one here in Chicago (90 degrees at 5 PM as I write this)!

Spanish people seem to be aware of this cultural heritage. I took an early-morning connecting flight from Sevilla to Madrid and while waiting in line, I realized it was the best-smelling airport experience I’d ever had. The (mostly male) flyers’ mingled scents of cologne or aftershave or whatever made the lack of organization in boarding almost unnoticeable. Truly a testament to the power of fragrance.

 

 

 

 

 

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Scent | Agave by Coqui Coqui

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I have a commitment problem. Last week, I was all excited to finally buy Velvet Haze by Byredo and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I love it. This is my fall and winter scent, I decided.

But–today I met up with a friend for coffee and afterward we went to a flower shop, Fleur, that also carries gifts and the like. I was excited to see that they carry Tatine Candles, my favorite, although they were out of a new one I’d like to buy, Kensington. They also had a whole display of perfumes from Coqui Coqui, the perfume line from the Yucatan. I was disappointed they did not carry Maderas, which I just finished up this year, but decided to try some other ones. I sprayed on some Agave to sniff over the afternoon, and this was my reaction, in meme form:

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Whyyyyyy can I not be happy with one scent? It would make life so much easier. And cheaper.

Agave is definitely a green scent with definite vegetal aspects, but also has a smoky spiciness. While it evokes the hotter clime of Mexico and the south, the smokiness makes it appropriate for colder weather too.

I’m sorry that I’m already thinking of cheating on you, Velvet Haze. As much as I’d love to find another signature scent, it seems I’m just not the kind of girl to settle down with just one perfume.

 

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Scent | Merz Apothecary Fall Fragrance Event

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Here is Merz’s Tanja Buhler, who also hosts fragrance workshops.

If you love fragrances, you have to go to Merz Apothecary in Chicago. The original shop is outfitted like an old-fashioned pharmacy, complete with wood paneled walls and shelving. It was a good place to go for everything from Claus Porto soaps to German herbal teas. Then a couple years ago it expanded into the space next door, supposedly for men’s products, but the real draw is the amazing perfume selection. Merz now carries lots of niche fragrance brands you’ve heard of plus lots that you haven’t, and while you might have to ask salespeople to help you try them, they’ll never pressure you for a sale, and you can also ask for a sample. After all, often you want to let a scent dry down on your skin for several hours to see how it evolves.

I saw that Merz was having a fragrance event featuring autumnal scents and signed up right away. (Plus I only live a couple miles away). A convenient opportunity to try lots of unusual and expensive smoky, woodsy, and spicy perfumes at once? Yes, please.

After milling about for a while to drink wine and eat some small bites, we split up into three groups and sniffed a half-dozen scents in three categories: Smoke, Wood, and Heat & Spice. Staff provided background on the houses and descriptions of the scents, spritzing tester strips and encouraging us to test out the ones we liked on our skin.

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While I like a lot of perfumes, I’m pretty picky about the ones I will wear, so I really only found a few that I wanted to try. In the wood category, I liked Chypress by Floris, a citrus-spiked concoction by one of the oldest fragrance houses still in existence. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the dry down, which left a sort of fake grapey-chemical tang. I’ll have to find out what this ingredient is, because I’ve experienced it before with other perfumes. Oud by Maison Francis Kurkdijan had promise with its evocations of a campfire under a desert sky in the Middle East, but ultimately it didn’t have enough structure for me.

In the smoke category, I had high hopes for Palo Santo by Carner Barcelona since I love exotic woods from the Yucatan so much, but it had too much vanilla. Other scents were truly fascinating, like Chambre Noir by Olfactive Studio, which evoked a beloved leather jacket on a cold day with a nice balance of fruit (dried plum) with smoky elements. 1805 Tonnerre by BeauFort London was truly mind-blowing–lime on top of gunpowder. Someone described it was “like working in a British weapons factory.” (Appropriate, since the official description notes it “imagines moments within the Battle of Trafalgar.”)

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I hit the jackpot in the Heat & Spice category. It figures I would gravitate to the most expensive fragrance of the entire night, Golden Chypre by Grossmith ($395 for 3.4 ounces). It smelled like the inside of your grandmother’s best leather clutch that was infused with tobacco, perfume, and cosmetic scents over the decades. I have a soft spot for chypres–years ago I had a thing for Bandit by Robert Piguet–and I LOVED this one. So complex and vintage-inspired, yet not heavy or old-fashioned. However, the price gave me pause, so I got a sample instead. Unfortunately it disappeared surprisingly quickly on my skin, so I don’t think I will be shelling out for it soon.

The other one I fell in love with was Velvet Haze by Byredo. I love the Byredo line for its bottles and simple labels, but had only tried a few scents. At first Velvet Haze didn’t seem like it would be up my alley. It was very tropical, with a strong note of coconut. That burned off very quickly however, and you end up with a sort of sweet milky musk.  I wrote “bonfire on a tropical beach” in my notes, but that’s more of a feeling than how it smells. I would say above all that this is a very modern scent. Winner! I’m going to splurge on it this weekend.

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Oh, and the other reason to go to Merz’s fragrance events is that they give the cost of the ticket ($20) back to you in the form of a gift card, plus you get tons of samples in a gift bag. That also makes me feel slightly less guilty about how spendy the Velvet Haze is–good marketing strategy!

Bonus skincare review: I also had the chance to talk to Mariko Sato of Chidoriya, an all-natural and organic Japanese skincare line available at Merz. I was in need of a new daily moisturizer for the dry days of winter, and she steered me toward Secret de Geiko, a concoction of shea butter, camellia oil, and gettou oil. It sounds heavy, but it absorbs quickly and easily. She also suggested the Peach Moon Herbal Water as prep for the moisturizer. Needless to say everything smells good, and the prices are affordable. Ask to see the hand-painted silk kimono clutch and makeup bags they offer too.

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