on smelling smells
I’m not a collector. I don’t particularly like having “stuff,” especially stuff that takes up space. I don’t keep a robust book collection, nor do I stock my kitchen with cookware beyond the cast iron. Most of my storage issues are gear issues - the bare minimum of gear for rock climbing is still a fair amount.
My one indulgence is scents. I love fragrances: small, wearable works of art, privately enjoyed and experienced, except for when it’s a lush surprise for someone I invite to step in particularly close. My scent collection is small. I have eleven in regular rotation, five of which are full bottles1, six are travel-size or sample; I have about ten others in small sizes that no longer suit my taste or were blind-buy samples waiting to be traded or gifted (yes, there’s a fragrance swap economy). A full bottle is a rare purchase. My tastes change with the season, and as I age, so I like to wear a variety of fragrances that reflect that.
This winter I returned to my first beloved fragrance. I have it in a full-size EDT2, in a tacky gold bottle similar to a scotch decanter. Guerlain Jicky. Developed in 1889, it’s touted as the first modern perfume, in that it is based off multiple scent notes, and uses synthetic ingredients. I started wearing Jicky occasionally in 2013. I loved feeling like the scent had found me through the centuries, but I felt shy when it was on my skin, like I was playing dress-up, and I relegated it to occasional summer days.
Ten years later, I wear it. Jicky smells like sunshine. Like the sun, its effect is differs through the seasons. In summer, my sweat brought out the herbaceous notes, rosemary and basil, like I had just been traipsing through someone else’s garden. In winter, I’m discovering more softness in the vanilla base, and openness in the lemon top notes. It’s not quite cozy, and not quite fresh, a foyer of a scent, like stomping the snow from your feet in a warm doorway on a bright, cold day.
Fragrance is hard to write about because it’s so subjective. Not only do scents smell differently to different people, fragrances change depending on body chemistry, so a scent I love on a friend might smell rancid on me.3 Scent reviews, like this one, are as beautiful and pointless as the scents themselves. A good scent review will catch my interest, and I might seek out a sample or poke my head into a specialty shop to try it, but mostly I just enjoy reading them.
Fragrantica, an ad-bloated dinosaur of a website, provides community reviews of almost any scent imaginable. Many are incomprehensible. Writing about fragrance requires skill to transform the inchoate experience of smell into coherent phrases, and the ability to untangle the sensory experience from the emotional reaction to the sensory experience, and the wisdom to identify when the emotional reaction is key to one’s understanding of the fragrance itself. And all of that is done just for the sheer love of the game.
My favorite scent connoisseur is Fragrantica user Teddyboy, a Singapore-based writer with taste similar to my own. Teddyboy writes about Jicky with love and panache. I’ve included an excerpt from the review below. Describing scents requires both sharp attention to a singular sensory experience as well as a willingness to range wide and creatively to communicate a feeling. I recommend it as an exercise. I also recommend Jicky.
There is something about Jicky’s hesperidic freshness that makes me think of it as my ‘white t-shirt’ scent - for days when I want to feel unencumbered yet stylish and, perhaps, even as handsome as Marlon Brando in a Streetcar Named Desire. It is by no means a surgically-clean freshly-laundered white t shirt, it’s rumpled and a bit sweaty, but the clean sweat of a desirable man, straight out of a warm shower freshly shaved but already perspiring. It avoids the overt sharpness of cologne or aftershave, or the solemnity of deep green oakmossy notes and remains perky all the way down to that gorgeous edible lemon-tart finish. Its dandyish brother, Mouchoir de Monsieur, feels way more dressed up somehow than Jicky; and as such he comes across as more mature even though he is fifteen years younger; he definitely puts on way more airs and cares much more about the fall of his trousers or the barathea of his evening ensemble. Jicky, insouciant, just wants to hop on his bike and go.
Three are designer fragrances I love. The fourth is a “character fragrance” designed to smell like an anime character purchased as a souvenir in Tokyo. Smells grassy and herbaceous at first and then dries down to a cheap acetone-smelling base. Tragic. The fifth is “Gary” by Spongebob. Gary doesn’t come in a small size, but the full bottle was only around $12. It’s a rich, deep, dirty beach smell, musk and coconut and driftwood and salt. It only gets more intoxicating if I sweat while wearing it, and it lasts over twelve hours. A key summer fragrance. Unbelievable.↩
Eau de toilette. Less concentrated than typical eau de parfum scents.↩
Vetiver does not agree with me at all.↩