My journey in perfume

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A couple of weeks ago I cleared out a lot of perfumes sitting in our bathroom cabinet. 

The cabinet is actually a tall, vintage piece, originally for a dining room. It has drawers in the bottom where we keep towels and sheets, and shelves in the top with glass doors - where pharmaceuticals, perfumes and a few boxes are kept. 

The perfumes looked pretty there, but they were taking up too much room. So I had to thin them down. 

In the end I kept just three, with a few more in a Santa Maria Novella box just behind them. Given I had more than 30 at one point, this was drastic. 

I removed so many because I feel I’ve come to a decisive juncture in my journey with perfume. After years where it has been my number-two obsession - after clothing - I’m at a point where I feel I’ve sampled every option, experienced every experience. Pretty much. 

I’ve tried every type of perfume and producer, big and small; I’ve interviewed leading creators; I’ve visited factories; I’ve had guided walks talks through the history of scent; and I’ve twice tried creating my own (without much success).

I feel I know now what the world of perfume has to offer - whether it’s a modern perfume that recreates bubblegum on a pavement, or a storied cologne from the biggest makers in Grasse. As a result, I am now confident that I know what I like - and how I want to enjoy perfume in the future. 

I know the first question is going to be, which were the three I kept?

They were ‘Charcoal’, by Perfumer H; ‘Original Vetiver’, by Creed; and ‘Cologne Indelible’ by Frederic Malle. 

Each of these has a story. I’ve interviewed Lyn Harris and love what she has done at Perfumer H. I think everyone should visit her exquisite shop and try her version of whatever scent they prefer. Lyn has something good to say about every one. 

Original Vetiver is emotional for me - something I will forever associate with a friend and a first trip to Florence many years ago. 

Frederic Malle, meanwhile, is probably the most fascinating person I ever have interviewed about perfume, and Cologne Indelible is impressive in that it manages to be both a classic cologne and something original, which is rare. 

The choice of these three was also practical though, as I think it should be.

It’s not really useful or even enjoyable to have too many perfumes. Part of the core appeal of fragrance is that it’s personal - something intimate, that (at least with men) you don’t smell until you are pretty close. 

It should be something distinctive, therefore, that people identify you with. Your wife should think of you when she smells it. 

(My wife, by the way, wears ‘Dans Tes Bras’ by Malle (below), which is an unusual, physical fragrance. ‘Fahrenheit’ from Dior, meanwhile, always reminds me of my father. He would put it on in the evening when he was going out with my mother, and I would smell it when I gave him a hug at the door.)

At the same time, there are good reasons for having more than one fragrance. 

One is weather, or season. A fresh vetiver isn’t quite the same on wet Winter’s day. You want something smokier for that. 

Another is occasion: a heavy, musky scent is often more suited to the evening. It always seems a little weird to me when you smell heavy ouds on people in a cafe in the morning. (The fact you can smell it on a man at that distance isn’t a good sign either.)

So, I picked three perfumes that cover most of these bases, and are distinct from each other. ‘Charcoal’ is dark and smoky; ‘Original Vetiver’ is fresh and green; and the Malle Cologne is everyday, classic and clean. 

My journey through perfume over the past 10 years gives me confidence in these choices. 

I’ve tried many floral and spicy scents - not just in a store, but taken away samples, tried on several occasions, dried down, absorbed and considered - and know those two families are for me. 

I also love the idea of oud, and the first heavy, exotic impression it gives. But it can seem sickly after a while. And I’m always attracted to perfumes called ‘Leather’, but they never smell like leather. They smell like soap. 

Still, I did keep a few more hidden away in the cabinet, for variation. For when I just feel like something different They were:

  • Bel Ami from Hermes (a woody chypre, very 80s)
  • Real Patchouly from Bois (the best patchouli I’ve found)
  • Hinoki from Monocle (fresh cypress, woody but unusual in being Japanese cypress)
  • Habeo from Bryceland’s (Ethan’s surprisingly nice leather option)
  • Acqua di Colonia from Santa Maria Novella (a more regular cologne, and one that reminds me of the wonderful shop)

I should say, by the way, that in general I don’t think recommendations of perfumes are that useful. 

It’s interesting to know why someone likes something - like a friend describing why they drink a particular wine. But this is a very personal area, emotional and subjective. There’s no reason at all you’re going to like the perfume as well. 

I encourage everyone to go on their own journey. Do take other peoples’ recommendations, and try them as well as everything else. Learn about the families and the history, the names of things you like and don’t like. It’s fascinating and rewarding.

But in the end, whittle it down to one or two that really feel like you. 

For me, the journey hasn’t stopped, but it’s different. I’m unlikely to ever change the fragrances I have. But I will never tire of the world of perfume - that unique branch of creativity, that world that is like no other, and that specific sensory stimulation.

I just know what I’ll be wearing on my wrist when I do it. 

For anyone that is interested in reading more about perfume, I’d recommend the following articles: