Please give a warm welcome to Elisa Gabbert, a new Bois de Jasmin contributor. Elisa’s first brush with perfume greatness came in the form of a bottle of White Linen lotion from her grandmother. About 20 years later, she fell down the rabbit hole after reading “Perfumes: The A to Z Guide” cover to cover on a flight. Currently she lives in Denver and is the content marketing manager at a small software company based in Boston. She also writes poetry (with collections including “The French Exit” and “The Self Unstable”) and is a founding member of Denver Poets’ Theater. You can discover her poetry and reflections on other things at her blog, The French Exit.
If we were wired properly, the smell of smoke would read as a warning sign. Yet I don’t associate smoke with Colorado wildfires or the carcinogenic properties of cigarettes and burnt toast. Instead, smoke conjures all things cozy and delicious: passing whiskey around a campfire, worn leather gloves, blown-out candles, the whiff of vanilla pipe tobacco when you pass a dapper old fellow on the street. I love smoke in my food (lox, bacon, barbecue, smoked paprika, chipotle chiles) and I love smoke in my perfumes.
Because smoke comes from fire, it’s an inherently warming scent, so as the air gets crisp and I pull out my scarves and fall jackets, I start craving my smoky perfumes. There’s a bit of magic in them – it makes sense that crushed rose petals would smell something like rose, but it’s somehow less obvious that you can bottle the effect of gray wisps rising in curls from ash.
To achieve a smoky illusion, perfumers use a number of different materials, from natural to man-made. The dry smoke sensation in perfumes like Chanel Cuir de Russie comes from birch tar. Traditionally used in tanneries, this rich and dark material is inextricably linked with the smell of leather. The synthetics like isobutyl quinoline (think of Robert Piguet Bandit) smell less like burnt wood and more like new car leather. Cade oil (also known as juniper tar), resins like styrax, labdanum, and opoponax, and animalic materials like castoreum also have smoky nuances.
The effect can be as subtle as in Guerlain Shalimar or as pungent as in Comme des Garcons Tea. In fact, I never understood Shalimar until I came into a bottle of an older vintage of eau de cologne, in which the smoky touch of birch tar was much more pronounced than in the current version. Smoke notes can bring a masculine edge to a feminine oriental or go as butch as leather chaps – or feel as abstract and genderless as autumn air.
Here are a few of my favorite smoky scents.
L’Artisan Tea for Two and Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb
It took me a while to get around to sampling L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Tea for Two; with a name like that I imagined a humble, unassuming little thing. But I received a sample in a swap and was blown away, and since then I’ve been collecting as much as I can get. It’s intensely smoky in an almost savory way – like charred meat – but the smoke is balanced with a beautifully restrained cinnamon note. Tea for Two instantly transports me to a big leather armchair in a library with a fireplace and red paisley wallpaper. The sillage surrounds you like a soft throw. Sadly, Tea for Two is now pretty difficult to find. Though not as deeply smoky, the leathery gingerbread of Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb comes pretty close.
Le Labo Patchouli 24
Perfumer Annick Menardo has a gift for deceptively simple perfumes; scents like Bulgari Black and Dior Hypnotic Poison are about as pared down as you can get while still being interesting and surprising. Black is Menardo’s most well-known leather scent, but it smells less like the inside of a Bentley and more like a tire store: a distinctly pliable note of rubber, sweetened up with tons of vanilla. Patchouli 24, on the other hand, is almost a pure birch tar experience, an accord halfway between smoldering wood and polished leather. It’s the distilled scent of a far-off fire. If you love woodsmoke and aged leather with minimal adornment, or just want to know what birch tar smells like, this is your girl.
Sonoma Scent Studio Winter Woods
Winter Woods is not a leather scent, but a rich, animalic amber with a fiery glow. A slew of woody, resinous materials (including guaiacwood, cedar, sandalwood, and labdanum) are given a smoky cast with birch tar and cade oil and a sultry, salty backdrop of castoreum, ambergris, and musk (synthetic and cruelty-free). As in L’Artisan’s Tea for Two, the edginess of the smoky, slightly acrid materials provides balance against the boozy, vanillic amber drydown, allowing Winter Woods to be comfortingly sweet. I haven’t tried every amber on the market, but I’ve tried a lot of them, and there’s really nothing else like this.
Six Scents M
Part of the Memories collection from Six Scents, for which each perfumer was asked to create a scent based on the memory of a designer, M is perfumer Yann Vasnier’s interpretation of “Rebellious nights spent up til dawn; dancing, meeting friends and finding love.” For once, the brief and the perfume are in perfect synchronicity. M is instantly ravishing, a nighttime perfume as sexy and mysterious as brushing up against a stranger. Like Gucci Rush, it smells mostly synthetic, and that’s partly why it works – the leather is rendered hazy through a chemical note like a smoke machine; then there’s the velvety musks, milky fruity notes, and nutty tonka bean combining for an effect like hot breath fogging up a cold window. Then, surprisingly, it dries down to an almost pure cardamom note. This must be the cleanest-smelling dirty perfume there is.
Soivohle Sonoran Leather
Liz Zorn has done several excellent leather scents; the two we own (this one and Meerschaum) are among my husband’s favorites. Sonoran Leather goes so far in the spicy, smoky direction it actually smells like gunpowder. Wickedly sulfuric, searingly hot and dry, it’s powerfully evocative of a high desert sun and the tang of gunsmoke that hangs in the air after a round of skeet shooting. One of the strangest leathers of all time – wear it to feel like a cowboy.
What are your favorite smoky scents?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, incense smoke at Senso-Ji Temple, Tokyo, Japan.