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:



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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Scent | Scents of Lisbon


Beautiful Lisbon.

I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal, over Thanksgiving week. (Highly recommended, by the way–Lisbon is beautiful, laid-back, delicious, and affordable.) While I was there I thought about and tried to pay attention to the way that smells affect our experiences and memories. In an article about museum curators going through boxes of Andy Warhol’s stuff (I can’t remember what publication this was, so no link), I read that the artist used to consciously use perfume as a marker of experiences–he would wear a scent for a limited amount of time and then never again, so that that fragrance would be forever associated with that period in his life.

I tried to do this in Lisbon. When I arrived, I noted that the city had the particular smell peculiar to old European cities, which I suppose comes from old buildings and maybe even air that has been breathed and re-breathed by billions of people living in close proximity over the last thousand years or so. I only notice it upon arrival, and then it goes unnoticed. It sits at the mouth of the Tagus River, which looks like the ocean, but it’s not salty–so no saltwater tang to the air.

There was a perfume shop I made a point of visiting, Perfumaria Alceste. It’s a tiny, dim little shop in the middle of the historical area, run by a frumpy older lady with beauty-salon hair who speaks English but is otherwise spectactularly uninterested in sales or customer service. The perfumes are all in glass bottles with handwritten labels and stoppered with cork. I stood there and sniffed for several minutes while she just stared into space. I asked if she ever mixed perfumes for people, and she said she did. When I indicated that I might need some help with that, she just shrugged. I ended up buying a tiny bottle of something called “incenso,” which I find fades within about an hour after I put it on. But it might be interesting to mix it with other things.


The unassuming storefront of Perfumaria Alceste.

At the Mercado de Ribeira, an indoor market with food stalls and shops, I tested out Claus Porto perfumes, which you can get in the U.S., so I didn’t buy any. But all day, I repeatedly sniffed my hand where I’d tested out the one I liked best, to imprint it on my memories of the day. I didn’t even note the name of the cologne, so if I ever smell it again, it will hopefully be a pleasant surprise and bring a rush of memories.


Peppers? At the Botanical Garden.

When I’m visiting a large city, I like to visit gardens. Spain had some of the best-smelling gardens I have ever experienced, so I was hoping that Lisbon’s municipal botanic garden would be similar. However, it was more focused on plants and less on flowers (plus it was November, so not much was in bloom). I did get a whiff of some plant or shrub as I was walking around the paths, though, that was hauntingly familiar. I never did pin down what the scent was or what plant it was from–another mystery, perhaps to be solved on a return visit.

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Scent | Where to Spray Perfume

Just a quick check-in to share this post about where to spritz perfume. I don’t think most of these are new, but the hair is an interesting idea, as long as your scent won’t clash with the smell of your shampoo. It links to another good tip for making your perfume last longer: massage Vaseline into your pulse points first.

Another possibility: In Diane Johnson’s novel L’Affaire, one of the French characters dabs perfume between her third and fourth finger, as an American looks on and takes note of this possible Gallic beauty secret.

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Scent | Natural Perfume Formulation with Jessica Hannah


I love the idea of custom perfumes and blending bespoke scents. So this past weekend I did a workshop at the Chicago Botanic Garden taught by natural perfumer Jessica Hannah of J. Hannah Co.


Jessica Hannah

Jessica gave a short introduction to the concept of natural essences and passed around a tiny piece of ambergris, which famously was a major ingredient in perfume for many years. It is basically whale poop, but like civet, it is one of those things that can bring amazing depth and transformation to a perfume. (Amazing metaphor there for how something “dirty” or profane is an essential element of beauty — but that’s another post.) Apparently how it is created is a bit of a mystery, but it is thought to be the result of an irritant in a sperm whale’s digestive system. Rather like a pearl perhaps, although ambergris doesn’t look like much in its raw form.

That was not one of the essences we worked with–as you can imagine it’s quite expensive. Instead Jessica brought about 30 natural essences, which were divided into top, middle, and base notes. Top notes are what you smell right away. Middle notes are what show up most strongly when the top notes start to fade. And the base–well, the base is the foundation of it all. It’s like music. Each perfume is a little symphony–or a pop song.

I'm all about that base.

I’m all about that base.

We chose three scents in each category. In each category, you could add ten drops using those three scents–in whatever proportion smelled good to you. Using droppers, we slowly built each level, starting with the base notes. You add a drop or two into an alcohol base, shake it up, smell it (preferably on your skin, of course), add more.

As you can see, there are so many possible variations–which is a little intimidating when you don’t know what you’re doing. But Jessica provided great guidance.  Some top notes, she explained, are “accessories”–on their own they’re a bit much. In the middle, sometimes you need a “filler.” And then there are the concepts of “locking” and “burying,” which refer to the ways that notes can come together. Advanced stuff. I was just hoping I could come up with something that didn’t smell like a car crashed into a perfume counter.

I’ve been drawn to more smoky, woody scents lately, so I decided to try to aim for that, maybe with some floral in there to lighten it up. For the base, I chose tobacco, labdanum (distilled from the resin of a Mediterranean shrub), and choya ral, made from the burnt wood of trees in India. (Apparently there is also a choya nakh, which the distillation of smoke from burning seashells. I have got to smell some of that someday.) I decided to focus on the choya ral, in the base.

For the middle, I went with ylang ylang for that floral note, plus rose. I don’t love rose, but I was curious to see what it would do. For the third middle note, I used clary sage on my first try but switched to lavender on the second. I thought both were a little too herbal, but none of the other middle options seemed quite right.

The top notes, said Jessica, are known to be very difficult to get right, for whatever reason. Apparently perfumers can spend months trying to figure out the perfect top note combination. And we had about an hour for everything! Well, I chose black pepper, cabreuva (another distillation from exotic wood), and juniper berry.

We did one formulation, then we all evaluated them as a class and reformulated them with Jessica’s feedback. Mine smelled good but less like a symphony than someone smashing the keys of an organ. Jessica suggested pulling back on the choya in the base and the black pepper in the top.

My second formulation still smells a little too strong and incense-like to me, like a hippie version of some high-end amber oriental fragrance, but Jessica said it was a great attempt for my first try doing this tpe of thing. I’ll be curious to see how it changes as it ages, and if anyone has any comments as I wear it around.

There’s a science to this, but of course it is also an art. It’s like an endless puzzle. And I love puzzles. Just what I need–another spendy hobby.

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Stone | AP Shop


I love the concept of the seasonal boutique. When you can get almost anything at any time, making an entire store available for only a few months out of the year makes shopping special again. Especially when it’s an exceptional shop–like AP Shop in tiny Lakeside, Michigan.

apshop_front room

AP Shop is owned and run by Ariane Prewitt, who I first met when she was selling vintage clothes with another friend. Well, actually I first met her, although not by name, about 20 years ago when she and her sister had a store in the just-beginning-to-gentrify Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park. They sold a perfectly curated collection of thrifted, antique and vintage items that were styled so beautifully, you wanted to just move in. I bought my first “major” adult home purchase there–a pair of pink glass art deco lamps. I still have them, and they still make me happy.


Many years later Ariane and her husband have a second home in Michigan, and she runs this shop when they are in town during the summers–typically May to fall. (The rest of the year she teaches visual merchandising at Columbia College and also works as a retail and design consultant.) Ariane loves textiles, and the store is full of lovingly made pieces from all over the world, some of them hand-woven. Again, it’s gorgeously styled, with a kind of minimalist haute bohemian feel. Every single thing here is carefully chosen.

For me, the big draw is the jewelry she carries. Last year I got a necklace of heavy handmade ceramic beads on a leather string by Bari Ziperstein.  It’s kind of my Rohrschach test for people’s taste. If they admire it, I know we’re on the same wavelength.

This year I got a handmade gold-painted porcelain ring by Ruby Pilven, which has a similar look.

Some of my purchases.

Some of my purchases.

If your tastes run more simple and refined, she’s got that too. Golden brass bangles. Gold hoop earrings. Turquoise rings. Something for everyone.


As you can see, I am drawn to the big and bold. So the new jewelry line by Sophie Buhai (one of the designers behind the erstwhile clothing line Vena Cava) is right up my alley.

Wooden cuffs and silver pieces by Sophie Buhai.

Wooden cuffs, wood and silver ring, and silver pieces by Sophie Buhai.

Look at those smooth, shiny surfaces. The dark brown cuff actually comes apart and is held together by magnets. Genius.

There are so many treasures here, including the beachy Coco scent from Coqui Coqui and colognes from sister company Hacienda Montecristo. A visit is a delight and well worth a day trip, or even better, a weekend. It’s only about an hour and a half from Chicago. If you can’t make it in person, check out the Instagram feed.

AP Shop, 14931 Lakeside Road, Lakeside, MI. It’s open from Friday to Monday noon to 5 PM,  Memorial Day through Labor Day, or by chance or appointment, 708-359-9204.

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Scent | Silent Light Perfume Oil

You know how when you go camping in the woods, and the ground is a little damp and soft and strewn with pine needles, and the sunlight filters through the trees, and your clothes smell like woodsmoke from the campfire last night, and it’s very quiet, and the only sounds for miles around seems to be an occasional bird call overhead, the drowsy buzzing of insects, and the crunch, crunch of your boots on the path?

Silent Light smells like that.

photo via GoldenPotion

photo via GoldenPotion

I’m not really a fan of what I sometimes think of as “hippie oils,” the patchouli- and sandalwood-heavy ones you find at street fairs and at health food stores. But I am a sucker for woodsy scents, and Silent Light opens with Palo Santo, which a quick Google search informs me is “a mystical tree that grows on the coast of South America and is related to Frankincense, Myrrh and Copal. . . . It is part of the citrus family and has sweet notes of pine, mint and lemon.”  Copal is another element in Silent Light and apparently also a favorite of mine–I don’t like incense, but after being exposed to copal incense at my hotel in Tulum this spring (they burned it in the communal bathrooms–it’s quite effective, I might add), I ended up buying some.

Perfume oils are a nice change for summer–lighter and less overwhelming than alcohol-based perfumes. They tend to be made of more natural ingredients as well–GoldenPotion oils are all custom-made by the owner using natural extracts, coconut oil, and organic ingredients when possible.

Lately I’m channeling my inner outdoorsy-loving side more and more, which is really challenging my image of myself. It turns out that I love kayaking! Who knew. So maybe this scent is speaking to this newly discovered part of me. However, if I start wearing socks with Birkenstocks and lots of Lycra and fleece when I’m not actually doing outdoor-type things, you have my permission to knock me upside the head.

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Scent | Garden-like Scents

I visited New York recently. I hadn’t been there for a while, and shopping wasn’t even on my to-do list. “Oh, shopping is the same everywhere now,” I thought. Silly me. I ended up finding tons of terrific clothes and spending a LOT of money, even for me. (Gulp.)

While I was perusing storefronts and trying to convince myself that it was really OK to spend an insane amount of money on a dressy dress (read: I don’t really need it) that looked amazing, I sampled a lot of perfumes.



I really love perfume oils–they’re so much more sensual than alcohol-based perfumes, and they tend to be made of natural ingredients. You can barely get more local than MCMC Fragrances — they’re made in Brooklyn. I liked the appropriately named Garden, which dried down from a zesty, lemony citrus to a more vegetal, tomato-ey base. Very simple and pleasing, like gazing at your own backyard garden.



The same day I passed by the Annick Goutal shop on Bleecker Street and they spritzed me with this famed French perfumer’s latest, L’ile au Thé.  If Garden is the economy option at $45, L’ile au Thé is the boutique hotel in Asia (about $145 for 100 ml). More complex, more feminine, and more exotic, yet light and welcoming. It combines mandarin and tea notes with white flowers — a garden, but one carefully designed for maximum beauty and delight.

One is not better than the other. They’re for different moods, different places, different purposes. Think of Garden as the $12 Chardonnay you enjoy with a simple dinner, and L’ile au Thé as the more refined Puligny-Montrachet.

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Scent | Sun-Baked Scents

If you’ve ever spent the summer in the country or gone on a road trip for vacation, you know the unmistakable fragrance of grasses and fields on a dry, hot day. It seems to emanate from the earth in waves, matching the shimmer in the clear air.

Annick Goutal’s Eau du Sud brings back this experience for me. It captures the hot, still air of a the deep summer in Provence. Although it is a citrus scent, with notes of lime, mandarin, and grapefruit, it’s the basil that stand out for me, providing a definitive herbal note. Through some weird alchemy, it’s not luscious fruit orchards that I think of, but rather the famous lavender fields of southern France. Even though there’s no lavender in the mix, this perfume’s sharp, strong sting is similar to the astringent, distinctive tang of that herb.


As you may have guessed, this is not a subtle perfume. But even though warmer weather is supposed to call for lighter fragrances, I am only inspired to wear this on the very hottest, driest days of summer.


Corsica Furiosa by Parfum d’Empire sets off similar sense memories, but with a lighter touch. Flowers seem to float on top of something more mysterious. As the name suggests, we are someplace fierce and wild–the island of Corsica, known for its rugged, mountainous interior, the maquis. In fact one major element in the mix is lentiscus, a native evergreen shrub. Another is nepita, a local variety of mint. So now instead of the open fields, we are in a much less cultivated and mountainous landscape of scrubby plants, wild herbs, and hot stone, tempered by the far-off influence of the sea air. It’s the familiar smell of high summer, but in an unmistakably foreign place.

Now if only the weather here in Chicago would get in line and offer us some of that intense summer heat! In the meantime, I’ll have to rely on these two fragrances.

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History of Personal Scents | Fracas

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.



Fracas was my mother’s scent, not mine. As I mentioned previously, my mother wasn’t one to spend a lot on anything, really. We barely had enough for the basics, and she was always telling us that we had the most important things: love and each other, our little family of three: her, my brother, and me. And that was true.

It was pretty rare that she splurged on anything expensive for herself. Her makeup and toiletries were from the drugstore, and she didn’t really wear perfume. I remember an old bottle of My Sin gathering dust on a shelf. But when I was maybe seven or eight, she discovered Fracas by Robert Piguet and actually bought herself a bottle. Of perfume you got at a department store. Unheard of!

Fracas is a scent of contrasts. Light yet intense. Fresh yet seductive.  This perfume is full of joy, not unlike my mother, who found immense pleasure in something as simple as cutting sheaves of lilacs from the giant bushes by our apartment building every spring. Some perfume reviewers have called it “exuberant,” which I think is correct. Exuberant, but not innocent.

Exuberance encapsulates my mother’s outlook on life. She never cared about looking cool or being sophisticated. She was a product of a fairly sheltered and privileged childhood out of another age–an age that was ending while she was still in it, in the 60s. Her teenage world was literally made up of sock hops, monogram pins, and hot rollers. There’s a famous story her college roommate still tells of the day they met. My mother came bounding over to introduce herself “with ribbons in her hair and her perfect blouse and full skirt,” just as if they were grade schoolers on the playground. They were lifelong friends.


My mother done up Mad Men-style.

But life has a way of battering us all. Not long after she got married, my mother found she had married an alcoholic and a cheater. But she stayed with him, because that’s what good Catholic girls did back then. Then she had two kids and realized that she had to leave him for our sakes. Her life was never so innocent again, but she never lost her sunny outlook. She had her moments, but even when she was dying, she “got more joy out of eating an apple than most people experienced in a year,” a good friend of hers said at her funeral.

Fracas is like this. It fools you with its explosion of flowers, but then there is seductive tuberose and an undertone of musk. With just the flowers, it would be horribly cloying. Just like in life, you cannot have the sweet without the bitter.

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Scent | Night Queen solid perfume

Photo from

Photo from

Anyone who has had a perfume bottle leak in a bag or suitcase knows the value of solid perfume. And if you’re not checking a bag, you probably can’t bring your regular-sized bottle of scent with you anyway, thanks to TSA rules. So it’s good to have a solid perfume around you can take with you on vacation. It’s practical, and it’s a little break from your “normal” scent–just like vacation is a break from your “normal” life.

I was in New York City last weekend and went on quite a scent sampling binge as I browsed the boutiques of the East Village, the West Village, and Nolita. (Forget the power of the Internet–NY shopping is still the best.) One of the winners was Night Queen, a solid perfume from In Fiore. The main note is a heady dose of jasmine from India, evoking the intoxicating cloud of scent that emanates from an exotic garden on a hot, humid night. Undertones of oud, patchouli, and saffron provide dimension that make this much more than a simple floral.

I suggest bringing this on a trip somewhere hot. This voluptuous fragrance will provide a fine subtext for your holiday experiences and memories.

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