My love of perfume started when I was about 9 years old with a couple of mini bottles of upscale scents my grandfather gave me during an ice storm cousins’ slumber party at his house. The standout among those precious bottles, and my go-to through my late-’20s, was Chanel’s Cristalle Eau de Toilette. The description on a vintage box I recently found online is spot on: “A brilliant burst of fragrance with the freedom of cologne and the force of perfume.” Reading that now and looking back through my perfume choices over the years makes me realize that’s the effect against which I’ve judged all other scents.
It’s not surprising, then, that I found most women’s perfumes in the ’80s and ’90s overpowering or cloyingly floral, or both. During my teen years I routinely embarrassed my best friend by trying on all the men’s scents at department-store fragrance counters. I preferred the earthy “realness” of them. While Ralph Lauren Polo (the original) was being liberally applied by every adolescent male around me, I preferred the aromatic tone of Aramis’s Devin and Bowling Green by Geoffrey Beene.
In addition to my mainstay, Cristalle, other scents marked various stages of my youth. The first one I can remember was a solid perfume of orange blossom that my parents brought home for me from a Caribbean cruise. I scraped the last of the balm out of that tiny jar with my fingernail, almost weeping when there was none left. The next gifted scent carried me through most of my adolescence, the classic fragrance of Tea Rose by The Perfumer’s Workshop. To this day, smelling it brings me back to when romance first blossomed alongside the timeless flower in that bottle.
When I went away to college in Massachusetts, I took along a memento from home that didn’t belong to me. I don’t know if my sister ever noticed it was gone, but I still have her small bottle of spicy liquid gold that is the original Cinnabar from Estée Lauder. Due to its potency, I only wear it on winter evenings and usually for dates, so I haven’t had a problem rationing this perfume across decades. A dab’ll do ya, and its fragrance lingers on the clothes you wear with it, marking those special occasions in a gorgeous, lasting way.
A treasured eau de toilette was a purchase during my junior year study abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France. I barely had a centime to my name, let alone a franc, but couldn’t resist the blend of herbs and flowers cultivated and distilled at the Abbaye de Sénanque. Though they currently seem to sell exclusively lavender scents, I hated lavender back in those days (no, really), so I would never have bought that. The fresh aromatic floral was a soothing, everyday fragrance that I used up way too quickly.
Later in life, whenever I was longing for the salty air of my native Long Island, I would mist myself with Christian Dior’s Dune. This was one of the first aquatic scents for women, and it always felt fresh and inviting to me, like a calming walk on the Jones Beach boardwalk I’d frequent on summer evenings. I have to admit to a bit of an addiction to Davidoff Cool Water as well. Though I’ve never known anyone who wore the men’s version regularly (and I’ve never tried the women’s version on myself), any time I smell it, I lean in a little closer. I guess aquatics are just part of my Pisces DNA.
I started making my own perfumes in 1998, so the majority of what I’ve worn since then have been my own creations. But a few commercial perfumes have made it to my dresser-top tray over the years. Classic French scents still hold a warm place in my heart. A trip to Paris’s Museum of Perfume yielded Emilie from Fragonard, the only pure perfume (as compared to eau de parfum or eau de toilette) I’ve ever bought, and it was worth it. It’s much more floral than I thought I’d ever like, but somehow it works on me. Similarly, while I can appreciate the beauty of Molinard’s Habanita (first encountered on a visit to Grasse in 2002), it’s a little too sweet for my taste. I found Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle a more sophisticated, understated early gourmand, and it made its way into my collection.
Though in adulthood I’ve moved away from rose as the focus of a fragrance, one exception has been Sonia Rykiel’s Rykiel Rose, purchased on a trip to Prague. I think it appeals because there’s so much more to it than rose, with complex spices and fruits, including probably my favorite fruit to both eat and smell, lychee. Guests at my studio know I suggest lychee as a top note more often than not, and for good reason. It has this unique quality of not only being lightly sweet, but it sparkles in a way I’ve only noticed in grapefruit. A lovely example is Sugar Lychee from Fresh. This is a scent I spritz quite often in warmer weather.
The last time I purchased a fragrance for myself was a spur-of-the-moment splurge in the duty free shops at Heathrow. Despite its strong presence, Idole d’Armani captivated me, and it’s the first scent I reach for on special occasions these days. In reading through the description on Fragrantica I now realize I may have been attracted to it because it harmoniously and smoothly combines the elements I’ve loved from the various scents I’ve worn over the years: bright citrus and lightly sweet fruit at the top, softly feminine rose and jasmine at the heart, and the earthly warmth of patchouli with a hint of spice at the base. I don’t ever try to replicate perfumes, but if I ever did, I’d probably work on this to uncover how seemingly unrelated ingredients could come together so beautifully.