Picking a smashing new scent

I mentioned in a recent post that a lovely, unadorned woman I saw at a party commented that she would like to begin to wear scent. At sixty, she is at the door of a magical land.

You may be like her, or, like me, interested in a new scent, one that intrigues our most evocative sense, that of smell.

A few ideas about choosing a new scent:

1. Forget what the salesperson tells you; she is often taken by the latest thing or is paid to push a brand. A salesperson told Christine that "blondes should not wear Opium". Bof! Christine inhabits Opium magnificently; without her sensuous, smoky sillage, she is not quite "Christine" to me.

Don't be influenced by your past preferences, either. If you've never worn tuberose or despised patchouli since the '70s, suspend your certainty. 

Who you are may have changed, not only psychologically but olfactorily. You will perceive scent differently as you age. (This also happens when a woman is pregnant; hormone shifts affect the sense of smell.)

Some perfumes are girlish, others the domain of a worldly woman. A few cross generational divides. One trains up to certain scents, the demanding, odd, even troubling. (See the category, Mystery Tours.) 

2. Try the scent on your skin, going about your life. Cards are useless. The scent you smell in the store will be affected by the other fragrances at the counter–and often stores deploy room scent throughout the floor. Apply it liberally. 

Resist sniffing the first wet spritz, which is never the way you or others will encounter it, and that immediate alcohol-laden burst sways your opinion. Smell it first five minutes after application, then at around twenty minutes (this will reveal the heart, not just the top notes) and every half-hour. Notice how the scent develops and how long it lingers.

Be wary about thrusting your wrist at your shopping companion and asking, "Like it?" A girlfriend has a different nose. Most men will either love anything, as it reminds them of opportunity, or in a rush to get out of there, they'll say it's "nice".

Try the scent a few times; like meeting a new friend, the first encounter does not always tell the story. If you don't want to keep trekking back to the shop, order a decant from an online boutique like The Perfumed Court or Lucky Scent.

You may find that perfume, eau de parfum, cologne or eau de toilette read differently in the same fragrance. Perfume Posse has a good post here (scroll down to the topic) on which brands make superior versions of different strengths.

3. Be wary of the classics, estimable perfumes that have been around twenty years or more. The fragrance may be different in its current formulation. This article on The Essence of Perfume blog explains why, and names a number of affected scents: "The Perfumers Association Bans Popular Scents".

Some makers have also altered their formulas within the last few years to enhance profit margins, though getting them to admit this is like getting an actress to confess to cosmetic surgery. As Luca Turin says, "the accountants have had their way with the noses." I wore the intense, dark Magie Noire in the '80s; the new version (obviously made with cheaper juice) smells thin and nastily sharp.

When to buy? If you get a delicious frisson to your toes, the panpipe trill of brooks and bluebirds, say, or the beckoning of tambourines and woodsmoke– any kind of deep, primal pleasure signal–it's time to buy the bottle. It will hurt; you do get what you pay for in the perfume universe.

The list: Travels in a scented land

I'm not a fragrance wonk; I find some descriptions as obscure as those of certain wine writers. I'm approaching scent via a travel analogy.

There is, deliberately, no description of ingredients or characteristics; make your choice more heartfelt (and fun) by experimenting freed from hype and other people's noses. A fragrance can evoke magnolias in a Roman garden for you and remind another of the vinyl booth at the diner. 

If you must know the ingredients or what others think, check the descriptions and reviews on scent boards and blogs like Basenotes or Perfume Shrine. The disparity of opinion regarding the same scent proves how radically body chemistry and taste can differ.

I could list dozens in each category; here's a start:

Day Trips
Graceful, well-made scents, subtle but not insipid; pleasing to wear; a jaunt

Lovely, Sarah Jessica Parker
Antonia's Flowers, Antonia's Flowers
White Jasmine and Mint, Jo Malone
Premier Figuier, L'Artisan Parfumeur 
Fleur de Bois, Miller Harris
Paris, Yves St Laurent

Beloved classics or new scents with presence and staying power; an excursion

24 Faubourg, Hermes
La Haie Fleurie by L'Artisan Parfumeur
Thé pour un eté, L'Artisan Parfumeur
Infusion d'Iris, Prada
Un Jardin sur la Nil, Hermes
Quartz, Molyneux
Beige, Chanel

Lost Weekends
Unabashedly sexy in either a ballgown or corset way; hang out the Do Not Disturb sign

Fracas, Robert Piguet
Tabac Blonde, Caron
Bandit, Robert Piguet
Le Parfum de Thérèse, Frederic Malle (I am so crazy for this, I can't find words)
Rose 31, Le Labo
Agent Provocateur, Agent Provocateur

Mystery Tours
Exotic, rare, even odd scents; not necessarily "pretty" but memorable– an off-road trek
Safran Troublant, L'Artisan Parfumeur
Like This, Etat Libre d'Orange
Amoreuse, Parfums DelRae
Nostalgia, Santa Maria Novella
Le Labo Oud 27, Le Labo
L'Autre, Diptyque

 I welcome your additions, scented goddesses!


frugalscholar said…
For the past few years, I've been buying my daughter a new scent each year. Sephora and many high-end department stores will decant you a tiny tester to take home and try a few times--for free. I've been meaning to write on this and now perhaps I will!
Susan said…
Wonderful post.

I have enjoyed Mitsouko Perfume
by Guerlain
Jean S said…
I once loved Diorissimo. Still do, although it's a bit too girlish for me now. Recently discovered a lavender scent by Daybreak Lavender Farm in Ohio that is amazing. It doesn't last long though.
Susan B said…
I tend to like something both floral and woodsy, which can be hard to find. Right now I'm liking Kelly Caleche eau de parfum, and YSL Parisienne eau de parfum both for day, and Fragonard Belle de Nuit or Chanel No.5 for evening.

You're right that it's important to wear the scent around for several hours before buying. I've tried several that I loved for the first hour, was unsure about for the second, and by the third was ready to peel myself out of my skin from annoyance. If it turns cloying, I'm turned off.

I'm ready to try some of these you've suggested.
Duchesse said…
Frugal: I've never seen the counter decant themselves in a dept. store but have received many little sample vials. But the recession has affected that, now they just want to spray a card.

Susan: Mitsouko is a much loved scent, can't wear it myself.

Jane S: That's why, though I enjoy many Jo Malone scents, I do not buy. Just too expensive, no staying power.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: I wear Caleche, and especially like Caleche eau Delicate, hard to find in NA, for day. One evening when I was wearing Caleche, one son said (with uncharacteristic excitement for a 15 year old), "Maman! What is that smell?" His brother replied, "Money."
Demi-pointe said…
Tracking me by my applied scents would have been a boring task! Most of my life perfumes and oils have made my sinuses fill up or my stomach turn over. Knowing how I felt and reacted - about 2 years ago my family bought me 2 different scents from Joe Malone. One is figgy & woodsy the other a hint of citrus. Nothing floral for me (same goes for my shampoos,shower gel, etc. - just give me a 'natural' aloe). I enjoyed wearing them very much.
However, as you said, tastes (and hormones)change. And again I find myself edging toward nausea with even my 'simple' scents.
Also, 2 different jewelers recently told me that applying perfumes or oils can discolor even 18kt gold. Has anyone else heard that?
Duchesse, can you tell us what post you are referring to in your mention of an "unadorned woman" in your first paragraph?
materfamilias said…
Currently, trying to empty a few bottles before buying new ones, but it's so tough to resist those siren calls. On my shelf now: Creed Vetiver and Hermes Terre, from the men's section. Kelly Caleche, YSL Parisienne and Balenciaga Paris, Annick Goutal's L'heure exquise (a commitment, and only occasionally worn). In France 20 or so years ago, I was introduced to Nina Ricci's Fleur de Fleurs which can't be bought on this side, apparently, and its summery lightness is really hooked into my memory although my latest bottle has been empty a few years.
Does this collection reveal me as inconsistent, too eclectic? I'm very clear on what I don't like, and every one of these scents I love for a different reason. I'll grab a breath of fragrance during the day with real pleasure. . . . thanks for this post of new suggestions to try.
CompassRose said…
I would like to try - Serge Lutens perfumes. From the descriptions, they sound like something I might like.

Of course, I could be completely off about that. Very often, I'll read an effusive article about a new perfume, which will talk excitedly about "woodsy" and "unusual", and then see it in a store and try it, and have it be just the usual same old whatever.

Most men I have actually been with have not liked my perfume, or the idea of me wearing perfume. If I test something (and I don't hate it on first sniff, which happens often) I certainly will run it by my partner's nose, to see if he recoils coughing.

I have the kind of chemistry that turns anything remotely sweet and floral into soap, which makes perfume very difficult for me. Right now, I'm also wearing Jo Malone, Wild Fig and Cassis, which I love because it's so absolutely non-perfumey - it smells like the inside of a tropical hothouse in winter to me, all green and humid. I used to wear Gucci Rush for Men, which is pretty much a pure sandalwood as far as I can tell, but it feels too strong now. I also wore Prescriptives Calyx in my late twenties, but I tried it recently and almost gagged, even though I think it smells the same. I don't like it any more.
Digs said…
I've always loved O de Lancome (a play on Eau) for a fresh everyday scent. Boss (Hugo Boss) Woman is a little more floral, but also in the everyday class for me.
Voyage d'Hermes...and Aveda are the two scents that I have...24 Faubourg was my last scent. Working in a school we are not permitted to wear scent so I have these for non working days.
Rubiatonta said…
My current winter daytime scent is Cedre by L'Occitane -- I love its androgyny and it's subtle enough for day.

I haven't yet found an evening scent that I like for winter, but just yesterday ordered a few small samples from "CB I Hate Perfume" -- another good way to see if you like something, especially if you're not able to smell in person before buying. His scents are artisanal, and often based on memories or experiences. They are "olfactory poems" in the best way -- a lot of them are "out there" and not for the faint of heart, but for me it's worth it not to smell like everyone.

If one has the dosh, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier also does unusual scents, though her minis are much more expensive ($45 vs. $17 or so for CBIHP) -- all hand-made of the finest ingredients, which is what you're paying for here. I've worn a few of hers in the past (Shiso is amazing), but I'm too broke right now to own a big wardrobe of scent...
laurieAnn said…
I've been wearing Ambre Narguile by Hermes for the last few years. Anything evocative of a middle eastern souk is going to get my attention.
Anonymous said…
I have a question, maybe some of you can help me... Why is it that after a short time (sometimes not even 5 minutes!) I can't smell many of my eaux de parfum; however I keep getting compliments from everyone about them smelling soooo good, even after more than 8 hours?!? Even men ask me what it is because they want to buy it for their wife (these are friends, not what one would think ;-)
Shelley said…
This is one of my favourite things about passing through duty free at the airport! I spray myself with anything I happen to pass that I've been wondering about and enjoy (hopefully) the results on the flight! I'm still working through a bottle of Paris that I bought in Berlin...took me a while to keep the names straight.
Duchesse said…
Demi-pointe: I am referring to my post "Grown Up Glamour", Dec. 8. I called her a "brown wren" which is Le Duc's term for an unadorned, unembellished woman.

I have the same relationship to scent as to food: I like and can enjoy almost everything. Jo Malone is great for those seeking non-florals and L'Artisan Parfumeur has some good ones too.

Re your question about gold discoloration, see http://www.ehow.com/list_6158003_causes-gold-discoloration.html

materfamilias: Funny how the last sixth of the bottle takes so long to use!

CompassRose: Hope you get to try some, they are interesting. I've only ever had partners who adored perfume, which is a good thing as it would be quite a wrench to give up.

Digs: Thanks, appreciate the additions. O is a good summer frag.

hostess: Aveda make several scents- ? I really like Voyage, find it does not last long.

Rubi: Thanks, I will look for Aftelier. There was an article in the NYT about this amazing French Sufi parfumeur, anybody recall his name?

laurieAnn: The whole Hermesscence series is extraordinary (and expensive).

Anonymous: Your olfactory system habituates to the sent. It's like the temperature of a room; you may not realize it's cool, but someone walks into it and says brrr.
rb said…
I like florals, but not cloyingly sweet ones. My current favorite is Trish McEvoy Sexy #4, which is gardenia based but toned down with other scents.

(The website says "The heady, irresistible scent of gardenia is infused with notes of musk, honeysuckle, exotic Neroli orange petals and sultry Turberose to create a sublime seduction of the senses.")

I love it to pieces but unfortuately, it's gone after an hour. :(

I also liked the original Salvatore Ferragamo perfume for women, which I think of as a "clean" floral. I also had lasting problems with that one. A salesperson suggested I layer the scent with the matching lotion to get it to last longer, but to me, the lotion did not have the same fragrance.
Duchesse said…
rb: Even if I love it, an hour is too short. Fracas is my favourite- that huge tuberose sillage! I'll look for Sexy #4, thanks!
LPC said…
Having worn no perfume for 25 years, I am suddenly addicted to Rose Oudh, which I bought in a blur but am wearing in peace.
Demi-pointe said…
Duchesse, thank you for the date of the "brown wren's" appearance. Reading your post that day I was far too absorbed by the more glamorous subject of the post!
Your link to the ehow article on gold discoloration was also much appreciated. Lately I haven't been wearing necklaces or perfume(must be the frigid temperature demanding turtlenecks)- perhaps I am a wren of a different color.
Duchesse said…
LPC: When your perfect scent appears, it's transformative (in the most low-key and material sort of transformation.)
I really like woody/incense-type scents, and on the more masculine side too. Also not subtle!

Let's start with the sweetest--I love Montale's Black Aoud: labdanum, aoud wood and a dark rose, definitely reminds me of some incense treasure found in a souk.

Next--Serge Lutens' Fille en Aiguilles. If you've ever been high in the mountains in the summer, you know this scent: pine needles, hot sap, clean air with maybe a hint of snow.

Finally--Serge Lutens' Borneo 1834. It's got dark, dry cocoa, with the chill of camphor, pipe smoke, patchouli. It's what Sherlock Holmes (or maybe Irene Adler) should smell like.
Duchesse said…
Fra Ambrosius: These are all new for me and thanks to you I'm headed for Lutens decants! And the Montale- sounds absolutely magical.
Duchesse: Montele makes a whole line of Aouds (red, white, blue and more I think), so you should find something you like! Assuming you like Aoud in the first place, of course.

I was recently at Nordstrom,and I was able to get a tiny decant of Gucci Guilty, so it looks like Nordies still gives good samples!
Susan said…
As a very young woman (teenager) in the late 1960s I wore Youth Dew by Estee Lauder. Did anyone else love that scent back then?
Duchesse said…
Fra Ambrosius: I like oud; there is no local Montale vendor but I will look when I travel. Having things shipped from US is a problem, apparently Canadian customs have declared perfume a hazardous substance, at least according to Aedes de Venustas, the NYC perfume boutique.

Susan: I wore Youth Dew, my first grown up perfume. (And Jean Naté.) It still evokes my teenaged room.

When I met Le Duc he asked me to stop wearing 'my' perfume and find a new one. (This sounds autocratic but it was not. He liked what I wore but wanted lots of new starts.) For years, this was Montana (Claude Montana). I changed to Premier Figuier (L'Artisan Perfumeur), a more 'everyday' scent when I had children. The evening ones I wear now are Norell, which is inexplicably cheap at those discount stores and was described as "retro even when it was introduced in the '80s") and Chanel No 19. Pining for Le parfum pour Terese!

One of my sons gave me Magnolia Romana (Eau d'Italie), wonderful! In summer I can't live without Cote d'Amour, L'Artisan Parfumeur's 100% natural scent. The essence of the seacoast.
rb said…
mmmm, I googled Fracas and it sounds wonderful!

green sap
orange flower
lily of the valley
white iris

I will definitely look for it. Thanks for the response!
Anonymous said…
Love this topic--and many of the perfumes mentioned. I'll add, keeping to your classifications:
Day Trips: Eau des Merveilles, Hermes; Beyond Paradise, Estee Lauder
Weekends: Joy, Patou; Diorissimo, Dior; Y, Yves St. Laurent
Lost Weekends: Black Cashmere, Donna Karan; Habanita, Molinard
Mystery Tours: L'Air du Desert Marocain, Tauer Perfumes; Messe de Minuit, Etro; Bois des Iles, Chanel

I've been meaning to try Parfum de Therese for a long time--will order a sample immediately!
Anonymous said…
Ah - one of my favorite topics!
I have worn Molinard de Molinard for much of my life. I keep returning to it after excursions into other scents; there was a time when it didn't work with my chemistry but that was brief. As a more mature person now I wear the EDP which has more dimension than the EDT, I think.

Other scents, in no specific order:
Patchouli oil - oh yes, I have gone there and liked it.
Amouage (the first one, before they created gendered scents and all the variations) it costs a mint but is still probably my all time favorite. I'm currently out.
Molinard Mure (blackberry) is fun and I enjoy the contrast with being a professional. I wear this off and on during the day, but more in the summertime.
L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain - my chemistry doesn't work with this any longer but it was a phase of sophistication when I was 20 or so.
Premier Figuier by l'Artisan - love it and love that you listed it.
Fleur de Figuier by Molinard - also love this one.
Nirmala - Molinard super yummy scent to me but one that is better for summertime than days in woolens or the office.

My chemistry definitely works with the Molinard formulations almost through their whole line - the only one I can't wear is Habanita. I wore the original Cristalle by Chanel and the Rafale for women by Molinard. Rafale was amazing and actually my very first perfume but has long been discontinued.

I'm lucky enough to live where there is an excellent perfume shop: http://www.theperfumehouse.com/ They have always been willing to make up samples unless the perfume in question (eg: Amouage) is prohibitively expensive. They also understand how individual a scent can be and encourage a person to take time in selecting one. I always try to take something home to test for a couple days just to see how it fits.
Anonymous said…
I had my 60th birthday this year and during a celebratory weekend in Paris with my husband visited the Serge Lutens shop in the Palais Royale. After trying a number of scents, I decided on 'Rose de nuit'. The choosing, in such beautiful surroundings, was a treat in itself, and I adore the perfume - a dark,powdery floral. It's not an everyday (or rather every night) scent, but for me will forever be inseparable from a wonderful few days and the beginning of a new phase in my life. For less special occasions, I'm currently wearing Lanvin's 'Arpege'.
Duchesse said…
rb: Reading any perfume description is a rather two dimensional experience, that's why I advocate just approaching the scent "cold". Fracas is a massive, heavy, seductive fragrance; its character is its distinguishing feature. A NYC cabbie once wheeled in his seat and asked, "Lady! What IS that?"

Anon@7:27: Thank you! I wear Eau de Merveilles and that's just where I'd place it. Cristalle: original was superb and the updated one a victim of the oakmoss issue.

Anon@12:43 Oooh, Amouage, yes and I had forgotten it. Have always adored L'Heure Bleu on others.

Anon@6:42: What a romantic birthday! I have been to that Serge Lutens shop. Arpege! The current version is beautiful but (it was my mother's fragrance) the one I remember on her was bigger, deeper.
Spacegeek said…
I have wore Samsara by Guerlain for over 20 years. I still love it. But recently I've been looking for something new. Marc Jacobs signature scent came close. But surprisingly (to me at least) I discovered I love Inner Grace by Philosophy! Absolutely no staying power, so I've been trying different formulations and layering. Just purchased the more expensive Perfume rather than the cheaper EDP after going through lotions, body spritz and EDP. Maybe this will work. Then again perhaps I'm just used to the far stronger Samsara? No matter it has been a fun journey.
Glennis said…
I go in and out of enthusiasm with scents.

I have been enjoying the whole line of Jo Malone scents.

I shy away from the popular and especially from the celebrity scents - I like the classics and I like scents made with real essential oils instead of synthetics (although I probably can't tell the difference, actually).

I once loved Mitsouko as a young woman. haven't smelled it in years. I had a long period where I wore a Floris scent called Malmaison - it's now discontinued, I think.

I'm glad of this post - perhaps a New Year's resolution will be to start wearing scent regularly again.
Duchesse said…
Aunt Snow: Jo Malone has a style which I love- beautiful, wearable but not invasive scents, but the staying power is so poor (almost nonexistent on me) that I do not buy- and this characteristic frequently cited by perfume writers. Fragrance lifts my spirits, especially on lightless winter days.
Anonymous said…
Just a note to say that my sample of Le Parfum de Therese arrived in time for the holidays, and is really lovely--thanks! It made me realize how much I enjoy a scent that opens with a hit of slightly bitter citrus zest, then settles into something else entirely. Eau de Merveilles has a similar appeal (orange/warm skin,) as do Chanel's 31 Rue Cambon (orange/proper Chanel chypre) and Piguet's Baghari (orange/Christmas pomander.) The magical twist for me in Le Parfum de Therese is the way soft white florals glide out from the background to take center stage-- subtly feminine, never cloying.

I also loved Fra Ambrosius's suggested Fille en Aiguilles and the intoxicating Black Aoud. Now I may have to try Borneo 1834...

Happy New Year, Duchesse.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Wonderful! Received a bottle and Le Duc had not even read this post. However am not opening yet as we might be moving in a few months - transporting opened perfumes a delicate business. Will try Fra Ambrosius' suggestions once moved, my reward for the upheaval.
Anonymous said…
Such a timely topic for me! I was just searching for a perfume that matches the woman that I am now. Drenched myself in Diorella in my youth, had an affair with Michael by Michael Kors for a while a few years back, but I feel the need for something a bit more bohemian these days.
Duchesse said…
Madeline: I suggest you order decants, as most dept. store counters play it pretty safe. "Boho" suggests notes of incense, spice, leather or oudh (agarwood), characteristic of Middle Eastern perfumery.

Some to consider: Paestum Rose (Eau d'Italie)- rose, but with incense
Patch (L'Artisan Parfumeur), an updated patchouli (what is more boho?)
Maber scents such as Ambre Narguile (Hermes) or Ambre Precieux (Matire Gantier et Parfumeur, order though www.lusciouscargo.com), and scents with oud such as Rose Aoudh (Killian) and Cuir Mauresque (Serge Lutens).

Have fun and tell us what you eventually choose!
Mardel said…
I can't seem to manage having or wearing just one perfume. But this change in legality of ingredients perhaps explains why a long term favorite, L'heure Bleue seems to be permanently backordered in the parfum version. My bottle is old and treasured. I am not afraid the new one will be a disappointment and I fear like I may lose a friend.

Otherwise, at the moment I am mostly wearing Chanel's Bois des Iles, DelRae's Bois de Paradis, Gris Clair by Lutens, and Vetiver Dance by Tauer.

For some time I wore Miller Harris's Eau du Rien, but as I age it seems more like Bal a Versailles light, definitely a kinder, gentler version. Now Eau du Rien seems like a non-perfume perfume, or the perfume equivalent of jeans and a tee. Or perhaps I am just growing into Bal, which I have always loved but which seemed too much when I was younger.

I am struggling with which I prefer in terms of sexy seductive perfumes: Fracas, or Bal a Versailles. I go through periods where I am mad for each.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Always loved Bal a Versailles, and often cite it when I ask for new scents in a boutique: "Give me something grand, lush and very high quality, like Bal a Versailles".

Now, in the workplace, either there is a request for scent free or people wear very light fragrance.

I cannot discern a difference in L'Heure Bleue but do not wear it myself- regular users might.

Air du Rien fades to nonexistence on me, gone in 20 min like Jo Malo9ne's products.
Mardel said…
Interesting, Duchesse. Jo Malone's products fade on me as well, but l'Air de Rien does not, although it is extremely subtle. Might be good if I were working, where some of the stronger scents would be out of place.
Anne said…
For years I wore Madame Rochas, a classic clean floral, until they altered the formulation (of course! everytime I love something,its changed or discontinued...) after trying zillions of others, I now wear Boucheron... there is no distinctive top note, just a lovely soft floral. For everday, in summer, I use Philosophy's "Pure" Grace which smells exactly like soap.

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