French Oakmoss from For Strange Women, along with fresh marjoram, is probably one of my favorite smells in the world. Funny, how they’re both very green scents, although I’d certainly put them on opposite ends of the spectrum. Marjoram being a sweetly herbaceous, rather cheery scent, and oakmoss, though it has a complex sweetness of its own, leans more toward the shadowy, sequestered musk and honeyed loamy–leatheriness of ancient lichen blanketed under the aromatic foliage primeval forests. Lavender and violet subtly brighten the gloomy…nearly claustrophobic nature of this fragrance (and perhaps I only feel suffocated because my nose is literally glued to my wrist because the perfume is that compellingly gorgeous) and enhance it with a focused, faceted intensity. It’s too calming a scent to call melancholy, but it’s too moody to call meditative. What is the name for such a feeling? Whatever the fancy word is for a contemplative moment wistfully frozen in time, it smells like French Oakmoss from FSW. is the name for such a feeling? Whatever you call it, it smells like French Oakmoss from FSW.

Occult Bookstore from Black Baccara. With notes that come across to me as warm sweetly spiced cinnamon and cool camphoraceous cedar, it’s a study in contrasts, with the barest, ghostliest whiff of a brittle, woody paperiness evocative of crisp pages brimming with mystery and magic. More than a singular bookshop though, this conjures for me a charged atmosphere electric with possibility and psychic connections; it awakens memories I have of Cassadaga, a tiny, rural central Florida community of mediums, healers, and spiritualists about an hour from where I live. Somehow this also captures the mood of centuries-old historic buildings, the aura of a haunted hotel where you can get a tarot reading or an energy adjustment, and all the little shops where you can buy crystals or candles or a Catsadaga calendar with photos of the areas feral felines where proceeds from the sales help to support & provide responsible stewardship for these four-legged personalities roaming the streets.

More than this though, it invokes a very specific visit when my sister and I spent the day there and then had a few glasses of wine at the hotel bar and chatted late into the night. At just before midnight we noticed the place which had been quite noisy earlier had become strangely quiet and we were the only ones left–it almost felt as if no one else had ever been there at all, and we had only imagined their presence. We roamed the empty streets for hours which you’re probably not supposed to do at that time of night, but we didn’t want the evening to end. The scent of cypress mingled with the inky night air as we made our way back to the hotel. This weekend in January, right before the pandemic is one of my fondest, most precious memories, and somehow I found it again in this bottle.

Gucci’s Mémoire d’une Odeur. Herbal, dusty bittersweet, dreamlike green musk. The sorrows of strange lullabies lilted in gentle whispers, fairytales of snow-blooming trees, borne from bones.   A fragile, longing, shimmering bell. A fleeting dew, a pale mist drifting low in a meadow, vanishing into an empty sky. A melancholy elegy for the whimsy of childhood. A deathbed poem at dawn.

Female Christ from 19-69 is all weird, chilly herbal woods, and rather a chemical, synthetic vibe.…like an artisanal toilet bowl cleaner. But in a good way?

Basilica from Milano Fragranze is a gourmand-adjacent spooky scent, it flirts with foodiness but it never actually goes there. It’s an eerie earthy musk (but think graveyards rather than gardens) creamy cedar and milky vanilla woods, and mysterious amber-myrrh resins, both warm and cool, enveloping and remote. It’s like a curmudgeonly ghost monk from a crumbling, haunted monastery has left the centuries-old ruins and paid a visit to a sweetly-bustling local bake sale. I love this and the only thing that is stopping me from buying a full bottle are the hundreds of full bottles of fragrance that I already own and will never use up before I die.

No. 23 from Fischersund is a scent and perfumery co-created by Jónsi from Icelandic minimalist post-rock and dreampop band Sigur Rós. It’s a densely tarry and leathery scent, charred wood and peppery smoke, that dries in your hair like green, aromatic moss and balsamic fir needles and pine. It also makes me think of salty licorice and hangikjöt —but not candy and actual smoked meat, really. More like a bitter, herbal chewiness, and scorched and smoldering birch and juniper and the ghost of blistered proteins? It’s stygian, enigmatic, and bleak, and maybe this is what my doppelgänger who just climbed out of the Katla ash storms and trekked through the Jordskott forest smells like. (I realize with those references I’m mixing together both Icelandic and Swedish creeping horror —catastrophic supernatural volcanoes and prophecies about evil forests—but whatever!)

Grimoire from Anatole LeBreton features a lemony-balsamic sweetness suggestive of curative sweets and a cryptic dustiness evocative of brittle parchment and rare texts, all encircled with a pungent fog of bitter, caramelized cumin and decomposing mosses and herbs. This scent conjures imagery from a 17th-century oil painting steeped in alchemical knowledge and symbolism and ancient traditions mingling science, philosophy, faith, and artistic spirit:

“A shadowy scenario unfolds as a lone wax candle burns deep into the night. Various lenses and prisms refract the faint glow of the flickering flame to vaguely illuminate a crude, darkened laboratory, whereupon an oaken table, dusty flasks precariously balanced, bubble with a disquieting phosphorescence and engines of distillation chug and clank murkily nearby. Brittle scrolls and yellowed manuscripts, embellished with colorful emblems and arcane symbols scribbled hastily in the margins, are scattered haphazardly on a dirt floor to further illustrate this scene of curious chemical phenomena and scholarly chaos. A wan, stocking-footed man with a funny cap alternately pores pensively over massive tomes or perhaps pumps a small bellow to encourage a sullen, smoking fire, while lost in analytical reverie.”

Yes, this is what Grimoire smells like. Yes, I did just quote a passage from The Art of the Occult, a book that I wrote. Is that tacky to mention? Maybe. Is it relevant? Entirely!

Safanad from Parfums de Marly. Oh my goodness. Never, ever has a fragrance before elicited such an immediate response from me of “holy moly, this is what I imagine so-n-so smells like!” Safanad is a rich, velvety amber, projecting an opulence amplified by orange blossom’s bewitching florals and jasmine’s heady musk, which always seems to me both elegantly amorous but also offers an animalic eroticism. This is a fragrance that seems at first vexingly overbearing and almost outrageously assertive but the better you get to know it the more you appreciate its sumptuous exuberance and enthusiasm. And of course, I am envisioning none other than everyone’s favorite flamboyant and glittering space aunt, Lwaxana Troi: daughter of the Fifth House, holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed. And much like this character, Safanad at first seems too much, nearly suffocating in its madcap glamour, but underneath its gorgeousness runs a deeply woven thread of melancholy, obscured for a time by orange blossom’s more hypnotizing facade but which, in fact, masks some really somber, sorrowful facets. Both Safanad and our beloved Betazoid galactic life coach Lwaxana are complex, compelling, and thoroughly beautiful.

I don’t dare read any other reviews of Chanel no. 19, because I’m almost certain that everything that can be said or written about it already has been explored at length. It’s an endeavor both frustrating and intimidating. But then I have to remind myself that I don’t have to be an expert or a guru or ensconced in academia or have years of scholarship under my belt in order to share my thoughts on something so profoundly subjective as fragrance. You Don’t Have To Know Everything About Something In Order To Love Something. I’m not delving into the history of a scent or a house or a nose, I’m not deconstructing the notes and the ingredients; I have absolutely no interest in that, and quite frankly, you can find that elsewhere. I’m just trying to tell you what I think something smells like. So. I’ll tell you that I adore this scent. Intensely sharp and dry and green, with the earthy, rootsy powderiness of iris, the acrid verdancy of galbanum, and vetiver’s leathery grassy woodiness, and that sour metallic tang and bitter effervescence that I always attribute to old costume jewelry; note-wise, I’m not sure where that comes from, but it seems to be a hallmark of these classic fragrances. And it subverts that refined elegance with a punky funk that elevates it to something that feels timeless as opposed to a bit stodgy. The marvel of this scent is its gloomy luminosity, how it’s both austere and achingly tender at the same time. It makes me feel a deep nostalgia and melancholic longing for something that never was, for a past I never lived.

If I’m choosing complimentary samples or maybe I am placing an order comprised solely of samples, I will look at the new arrivals and go for whatever sounds the witchiest, or alternately, the weirdest. I ask myself” “would Stevie Nicks wear this? Would Morbidda Destiny wear it? Would Barbara Steele scent herself with it in Black Sunday or Curse of the Crimson Altar or basically any role she’s ever played? If so, let’s grab it. And this is how I ended up with Betwixt and Between by Anka Kus. My version of judging a book by its cover and throwing it the cart without even reading the synopsis or author blurbs on the back. Sometimes it works out. This is one of the times it does not. Sniffed right from the vial it is immediately a syrupy fruity-rose, which is strange because I don’t think there is anything vaguely fruity listed in the notes, but there is amber, and sometimes that’s how amber’s rich sweetness comes across to me. For a few moments it settles down and there is a musky veil of smoke that is absolutely gorgeous. It’s not a sooty, burning smoke, it’s more the aura of smoke, maybe a room where incense is frequently lit, although there is none burning at present.

And then-betrayal! The fruit is back! This is an intensely jammy candied rose, squeezed from fresh fruit juice and pulp, heated and stirred with mounds of sugar and honey, and then cooled in little hand-crafted, flower-shaped molds until what you have are little fruit jellies, vivid nibbles of blackcurrant and pomegranate and lush summer roses. Hours later, those wily fruits were never there at all and it’s just that ghostly cashmere smoke again. I don’t care for this scent, as I am almost irrationally anti-fruit, but I know that some of you will really enjoy it, and I can’t help but to think it would make a lovely Valentine’s Day fragrance.

The first few times I tried Süleyman Le Magnifique from Fort & Manle, I couldn’t figure it out, but for whatever reason, today it feels different. This is a dispassionate cool, woody floral incense. An ornate, centuries-old chest with polished wrought iron embellishments, once brimming with rare woods, precious flowers, and sacred resins, but which has slowly emptied over the years. It is a vessel which now holds but the barest perfumed memory of its past riches, alongside the bitter, vanillic fragrance of the aged container itself, and a thin scrap of parchment, a fragment of poem; not of youthful frenzied hearts and fevered love, but a sober observation from one who has been around the block and seen some things– and has something to say about it. Perhaps in the vein of these lines from Sappho’s tablets:

Death is an evil.
That’s what the gods must think.
Or surely they would die.

Süleyman Le Magnifique is the scent of your collected wisdom and experiences– and having lost some parts of yourself in the process of gathering. Some of those pieces you lost were hope. But many of them were fear. And if you want to give the gods a piece of your mind, this is the perfume to reach for before fearlessly airing your grievances.

I don’t want to get into the actual notes or the perfumer’s inspiration for After Every Ounce of Joy (Leaves My Body); he mentions on the site that he hides the notes in a separate link so as not to overly influence the collectors and enthusiasts who are smelling it. Out of respect for those sentiments, I will keep mum on those points and just share my experience with it …which has become one of profound obsession. Initially what I smell is an overwhelmingly acrid note, like burning rubber, but more tarry than smoky, or maybe new vinyl siding. It’s leathery and vaguely animalic and it also somehow reminds me of cold, dry air. After about 15-20 minutes, a warm, sweet skin musk emerges and it’s at this moment that I cannot stop huffing my wrist because it’s so elusive and secretive. And underneath that, there’s something even more magical, a powdery, balsamic floral-herb that I can’t put a name to, and it seems like something you might only encounter in a dream. It’s so far removed from that initial whiff of melting plastic but at the same time this whole delicious skin scent is still enrobed in a transparent PVC shower curtain, which sounds a little morbid in a Laura Palmer way, but you can’t pretend it’s not there. But like I said, I am obsessed. And Chris Rusak is a genius.

Vanilla Vibes from Juliette Has A Gun, you had one job. For a fragrance with vanilla right there in the name, there is a shocking lack of it in the execution. Instead, it is a humdrum aquatic, with a sour, salty marine aspect and the barest whisper of sandy musk. I hate to use the word “boring” because that’s more of a judgment than a description, but I think in this case it’s perfectly warranted. I mean if this were a person, it wouldn’t even have a face. As a matter of fact, this is that same faceless person in a 50-year-old mermaid suit at Weeki Watchee barely submerged underwater and doing a terrible job entertaining children, and they’re actually so bored themselves they are texting on their phones instead of swimming and if you look closely you can see their toes poking through one of their fins. And you know what else? They smell nothing like vanilla at all.

I am swooning after sampling Sweetly Known from Kerosene. I’m neither a fan of sweet treats or sweet fragrances, but as it happens my current favorite sweet stink is also from the creators at Kerosene, and it’s a coconutty-pina colada- Biscoff masterpiece called Unknown Pleasures. So I’m not surprised that I like this one, too. They seem to be able to handle sweetness with nuance and complexity and make it interesting, rather than cloying or childish. Sweetly Known incorporates notes of Cardamom, Cocoa, and other confectionery notes alongside musk and it smells like a miniature bundt-shaped small French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla, offering a softly milky, tender custardy center and a dark, crackling caramelized crust. There’s also a smoky, dusty note that makes it feel like you’re burning the incense or smudge stick version of this dessert and elevates what might be a sugary experience to something absolutely sublime.

As a long-time anime and manga fan, I was of course never not going to be drawn in by the reference to Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, a stylish and strange cyberpunk neo-noir in which exists a world wherein people merge with machines, and boasts an iconic storyline that asks consciousness-expanding questions and examines what makes us fundamentally human. Notions of philosophical inquiry aside, The Ghost in the Shell from Etat Libre d’Orange is a confused, chaotic concoction that makes you think someone fed a bunch of molecules to an AI and tasked it with creating a perfume. There’s a head-scratchingly metallic green floral note, a synthetic fruit that winks in and out of existence–a sort of speculative lactonic peach– and a plastic, prosthetic musk alongside a pungent, bittersweet note that veers between cumin’s weird, woody funk and a rotten belly button infection. And sure you can be grossed out by that, but we’ve all got human bodies and they all occasionally do stinky human things, so simmer down. Lazy people who have ever gotten their navel pierced are intimately familiar with this aroma.

The funny thing is, it’s possible that I like Ghost in the Shell and its reality-warping, neon city, mechanical-limbed artificial absurdity. When it works, it’s a really playful and unique skin scent. When it doesn’t, it’s a cyborg with digitized BO. But I’m not sure I’d take my chances with the purchase of a full bottle, let alone a bespoke upload of it directly to my olfactory cortex.

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