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On the Scent: Five from Sonoma Scent Studio

Like most American women susceptible to marketing, I took an interest in smelling nice at roughly the onset of puberty. At 12 and 13, my friends and I were partial to the various scented lotions and gels available at Victoria’s Secret; I remember a particular fondness for “Tranquil Breezes,” a powerful cucumber-melon scent, and the cloying “Freesia.” My mother found these substances disgusting. I guess love of perfume skips a generation, because my grandmother noticed my inclinations and started gifting me with bottles on a regular basis.

The first of these, as far as I recall, was White Linen, which I’d originally smelled on her. She gave me the lotion rather than the straight-up “juice” (industry jargon for the liquid in the bottle), a sort of perfume for beginners, not as strong or long-lasting as a spray but with a big opening whoosh when I’d spread it on my arms. This intensely powdery floral, introduced by Estee Lauder in the 1970s, is an excellent example of what young women today call an “old lady perfume.” But I loved it: It smelled impossibly clean and white and feminine. Like my grandmother, yes, but only the best and most beautiful aspects of her.

My tastes took a dip as I moved into junior high, though I fancied myself more sophisticated than my classmates for choosing cK One, which had the distinguishing characteristic of being marketed to wannabe grungy boys and girls alike, over the sweeter, sunnier, and more popular Sunflowers and Vanilla Fields. I also went through high school believing I had discovered L’Eau d’Issey. (It may have seemed unique in El Paso, Texas, but I now realize the entire country was wearing cK One and L’Eau d’Issey in the ’90s, the height of our love affair with the “marine” material known as Calone.)

Things got decidedly better in college, when I smelled Gucci Rush in a magazine and felt I simply required it. I asked for it for Christmas. (I used to believe that perfume was too indulgent to buy for oneself.) I received it, and for most of a decade it was the only perfume I owned; I still wear it. Rush is an extremely weird perfume, and totally abstract; it smells like nothing in particular aside from itself. If, at some point during my 20s, you had asked me to describe it, I would have been at a loss for words. (I now know it’s a lactonic chypre, though that conveys little to the layman.)

Though I have always liked perfume, I only recently became deeply interested in it as an artform. This interest (obsession, really) was triggered by my reading Perfumes: The Guide, a compendium of reviews of thousands of perfumes that are currently in production, written by perfume critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. My friend Chip, who knows the authors, introduced it to me. I expected to enjoy it on about the same level as Lucky, which bills itself as a “magazine of shopping and style,” and which I read monthly as a break from more intellectual pursuits like poetry. But the guide hit me on a much deeper level. I devoured most of it on a long plane ride, and I return to it again and again — as a resource, but also in the way that one returns to poems. (I think I may have some of the reviews memorized.)

It is not surprising, really, that I could fall in love with perfume. It seems to occupy a space somewhere between food, wine, and fashion, all of which I’m enthusiastic about. With food and wine it shares a sensuality that is in fact intellectual, an attention to small variations in aroma and flavor. Like cooking and wine-making, perfumery is both a science and an art. Like fashion, it’s a wearable form of art. Also like fashion, it’s an outward expression, but the pleasure I derive from my clothing and fragrance is primarily personal. I like when people notice and enjoy my perfume, but if they never did, I wouldn’t care. I wear perfume when I’m alone. Like most perfume hobbyists (aficionados, addicts), I wear it to sleep.

In this new column, I’ll be reviewing perfumes (on the basis of artistic merit, originality, quality, and wearability) as well as talking about the cultural and scientific history of perfume, my own experiences with it, and my ongoing education.

I’ll begin with five scents from California-based Sonoma Scent Studio, the public brand on the handiwork of independent perfumer Laurie Erickson. Inspired by the smells of her garden and Sonoma landscape, Erickson creates small-batch perfumes for men and women using high-quality natural materials (including essential oils and absolutes derived from plants) bolstered by synthetic ingredients (such as synthetic musks). (Contrary to common belief, synthetics offer many benefits aside from cost, including lasting power and a broader palette of notes.)

SSS currently offers a range of about twenty fragrances, five of which I recently sampled. The below perfumes fall into the woody fragrance classification, but Erickson also sells a number of floral fragrances, including several rose-focused scents.

Winter Woods

Winter Woods is the first perfume I sampled from Sonoma Scent Studio and remains my favorite. It may be the perfect winter fragrance, an incredibly warm-smelling scent that wafts off the skin to wrap you in a virtual blanket of comfort. The strong woody notes with a touch of smoke on a delicious base of amber and labdanum evoke the feeling of sipping whiskey by a crackling fire, wearing an old leather jacket that smells like your dad. A more grownup comfort scent than foody vanilla (as a friend’s mother used to say of booze, it’s “an adult taste”), the scent is slightly sweet and deeply cozy, ideal for cold weather and soothing a bad mood.

The first time I tried WW, I knew there was something animalic in it, perfumery code for materials that quite literally smell like animals, ranging from cat piss to the pungent odor of unwashed skin. Here that material is castoreum, a resinoid extract derived from the castor sacs of beavers. (Rest assured, Erickson uses a synthetic, cruelty-free castoreum.) WW is a perfect example of how the slightest bit of nastiness can lend a sexy, golden cast to a composition, adding to the overall impression of warmth. It also makes the fragrance feel more classic, since even well-judged animalic notes have fallen out of favor in mainstream perfumery. Castoreum is also used as a flavor additive in cigarettes, which may contribute to WW almost suggesting tobacco, or at least the ritual of a smoke in cold night air.

The full list of notes includes guaiacwood, cedar, sandalwood, birch tar, cade, oakmoss absolute, castoreum, amber, labdanum absolute, vetiver, ambergris, and musk. This deep, intense perfume radiates out from the nozzle and lasts all day. Like most of Erickson’s scents, it is easily unisex, lacking overt feminine signals such as florals and overt masculine signals such as dryness and herbs.

Femme Jolie

Femme Jolie, meanwhile, is described as “a long-lasting cedar scent composed of woods, soft spices, musk, fruits, and florals” with notes including ginger, cinnamon, clove, plum, peach, orange blossom, violet, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, and musk. In Femme Jolie I was hoping for a longer-lasting version of Badgley Mischka, a beautiful fruity-woody fragrance that doesn’t have quite the projection or lasting power I’d like, but the fruits in FJ play a very small supporting role to the starring spices. In fact, for the first several hours, all I smell is clove. It smells like Christmas potpourri. FJ is better at the far drydown—more subtle and layered—but not so much that it’s worth getting through the room spray stage. Big fans of clove may love this, but for me this cooking spice, similar to cumin and vanilla beans, is usually better sniffed straight from the jar than in perfume.

Sienna Musk

Sienna Musk is another woody fragrance, combining sandalwood, cedar, cypress, and mulling spices with a clean, fresh-smelling musk, for a cooler, crisper effect than Winter Woods (Spring Woods, perhaps?). SM also stays closer to the skin. The spices here are much more delicate than in Femme Jolie, and there’s an almost fizzy sweetness to it that reminds me of nothing so much as birch beer. Sienna Musk is a pleasant daytime fragrance that feels befitting of dog walks and laundry day, but it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing this as a signature scent.

Champagne de Bois

Champagne de Bois opens up with an intensely woodsy, smoky-piney, almost urinous note. This scent contains aldehydes, organic compounds that are said to give “lift” or a sparkly quality to perfumes. (Chanel No. 5 was one of the first perfumes to use aldehydes. Probably for this reason, these materials can be associated with a “perfumey” smell.) CdB does feel brighter and more feminine than Winter Woods, more of a daytime campfire, but I get less effervescence than in Sienna Musk, which has no aldehydes—likely the heaviness of the labdanum and amber (dark, resinous scents) here provide a counterweight to the aldehydic lift. Like Femme Jolie, CdB contains clove, but as in Sienna Musk the clove is more suggestive of spiciness than actually spiced. Other notes include jasmine, sandalwood, and vetiver. Cedar is not listed among the notes, but the combination of woods and aldehydes creates the impression, as it dries down, of inhaling deeply from a cedar chest. Quite nice, but not as magical as Winter Woods.

Tabac Aurea

Who doesn’t like the smell of tobacco? Tabac Aurea smells, mercifully, not like cigarettes but like a tobacco shop, like pipe tobacco, with a hint of slightly smoky vanilla but no hint of the ashtray. It’s a smooth, grandfatherly smell that reminds me of Christmas and dens lined with leather-bound books. TA is reminiscent of a few scents in the Serge Lutens line (a semi-exclusive niche perfume house based in Paris), which caters to perfume snobs with their love of more “difficult” notes like leather, tobacco, and animalic musks—but in fact this is just as good and more affordable.

Notes include cedar, sandalwood, blond tobacco, leather, vetiver, patchouli, clove, labdanum absolute, tonka bean, amber, vanilla, and musk. Like Winter Woods, Tabac Aurea is a beautiful, sweet, nostalgic scent for adults—this point seems worth belaboring given the current market, in which both masculine and feminine scents are targeted at teens and 20-somethings, leading to a glut of fresh and fruity scents. TA is good on anyone’s neck, but I’d especially like to smell it on a man.

Sonoma Scent Studio perfumes can be ordered online and typically cost $32 for 17 ml and $52 for 34 ml.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado ReviewThe Laurel ReviewPuerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

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Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.

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