Scent | The Scents of Spain


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).


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.


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.


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


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:

guy and other girl meme

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


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.


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.”)


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.

Screenshot-2017-11-3 Eau de Parfum

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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scent | Twilly by Hermès

I don’t generally care for perfumes from major luxury fashion houses. They all seem to have a sharp chemical tang that makes them indistinguishable from each other. However, I got a sample of Twilly in my October issue of Elle and . . . I like it.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 2.42.50 PM

Besides Birkin and Kelly bags, Hermès is known for its silk scarves, and a “twilly” refers to the long and narrow shape. The fragrance is supposed to appeal to young women, as you might guess from the pink color and the playful cap, but it’s certainly adaptable to any age–not too sweet.

The notes are ginger, tuberose, and sandalwood. I got an overall spicy scent with strong floral undertones. Although there are not that many notes, it’s surprisingly complex, due to the spiciness, I think. I do sometimes have a weakness for tuberose, which is one of the main notes in Fracas, my mother’s favorite perfume. On the fragrance blogs some people are calling this a throwback to 90s scents, which I could see–it reminds me conceptually of Ysatis or even Safari by Ralph Lauren, although Twilly is not as lush.

I have to sample it more, but I may end up buying a small bottle of this one. I’m not a young girl and I’m certainly not outfitted in Hermès, but it still speaks to me.


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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


Image from

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.


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


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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)?

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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